Chaplain Reverend Albert M. Ewert
Albert Merritt Ewert was born in 1886 in Rawlings, Wyoming. It was to no surprise that Albert would grow up to be a chaplain for he was born to a father who was a methodist pastor. Albert had two brothers, Arthur and Earl. Arthur, much like his father, was a methodist pastor. Earl on the other hand was an outstanding Army man and served in World War II. He also had three sisters Anna, Ethel, and Carol. Anna worked as the head of a business office and the other two sisters both taught piano. As a young child Albert was pretty used to moving to different areas because his father was required to move every 3-5 years as a methodist pastor. Albert would go on from Rawlings, Wyoming and live in Taylorville, Illinois and Jacksonville, Colorado. Ewerts father built a new church in Illinois and Ewert himself would work sweeping the floor of a convenience store for a wage of $1.00 per week.
Chaplain Ewert would go on to graduate from Jacksonville High School in Jacksonville, Colorado where he played Clarinet and Piano for his church and served as a band leader in his high school. Upon graduation Chaplain Ewert attended Northwestern University. Ewert is quoted saying “Personal liberty is the right of every individual. Man cannot be legalized into morality.” His staunch support of the Democrats and denouncing of the Ku Klux Klan is what rewarded him with being appointed to become the Chaplain of Jackson Prison in 1933.
The New Social Concept
Chaplain Rev. Albert Ewert firmly believed that the role of the prison system should be to rehabilitate those placed in its care so that they may reenter society as productive, law abiding citizens. These views fell under what he called a “New Social Concept” which he promoted in his sermons, radio broadcasts, and writing (1). Regarding prisons specifically he proposed a new system of sentencing. Rev. Ewert’s plan allowed the Judge to determine guilt or innocence only. If found guilty, the prisoner would be remanded to an institution, but without any fixed sentence. Within the prison would be a five person apolitical committee which would be in daily contact with the prison population. The committee would be comprised of the Warden, the Chaplain, a psychologist, the prison’s director of education, and a disciplinarian (2). This committee would control the prison’s routines and objectives and would determine when an individual prisoner was fit to return to society.
The rehabilitation Ewert envisioned took many forms: art, poetry, music, athletics, and education--the things that many would say make us human. Prisoners painted in the studio he created on the prison grounds, often learning in classes the Chaplain taught himself. He also encouraged the prison band and produced a weekly radio broadcast for the public in which the prison musicians performed and Ewert would give an inspirational talk explaining the prison reforms he envisioned. He felt reading, writing, and education in general were vital to rehabilitation. He created “The Little Book”, a 42 page book intended to help guide a prisoner in ways to both make “doing their time” a little easier and to help them “get a square deal” when they were finally released(3). In “The Little Book” he explains how a man’s choices determine the kind of life he will lead both inside and outside of prison. By using the prison’s educational opportunities to complete high school and study a trade or field, utilizing the prison library to expand your mind and awareness, and by giving religion an honest chance, your time in prison could help prepare you to survive and even thrive in the outside world (4). Rev. Ewert believed that if a man’s freedom depended not on simply waiting sullenly and bitterly for a certain amount of time to pass but on genuine reform “he would work harder than he ever thought of working at anything before in his life to improve his mind and character (5).”
Chaplain Rev. Ewert’s career at Jackson State Prison may have been most exemplified on Thanksgiving 1934 when he brought 18 prisoners to his home to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family, an event which garnered national attention and a great deal of negative press (6). Ewert believed that the goal of prisons should be to improve and teach more than to punish. “We’ve got to get humanity into our prisons or pay the consequences. Brutal police methods and brutal prison treatment are only breeding rebellion and worse crime. We must try honor and humanity, sympathy and science (7).”
Letters to the Chaplain
Dr. Chaplain Albert M. Ewert made an amazing impact in the lives of many men in the Michigan State Prison. During his time there he worked to impart wisdom and inspire the inmates of Michigan State Prison. Many of the inmates wrote Chaplain Ewert letters expressing their most sincere appreciation of him and his time spent preaching and working with them on an individual basis. Through these letters inmates expressed thanks and gratitude for his open mind and for his ability to be a sincere speaker. It is through his courageous attitude and his kind heart that he was able to encourage so many men in this institution and as Julius Baer, an inmate in 1933 stated, “lifted many men out of the depths of despair.” These letters reflect the character and the impact of a tenacious, dedicated, and encouraging man (8).
Chaplain Ewert not only made an impact on the inmates whom he worked with, but with his co-workers alike. There was a particular letter that was different from the rest. One that spoke highly of the entire Ewert Family. Chaplain Ewert’s secretary, Chuck Purcilla, wrote a very heartfelt farewell letter to him. Although the letter was very thankful to Chaplain Ewert, his children, and his wife above all was a tone of sorrow. A letter written in thanks and in sadness.
1. Judy Gail Krasnow, Jacktown: History & Hard Times At Michigan’s First State Prison (Charleston: The History Press), 145
2. Frederick Griffen, “Prisoners of the Air”, Toronto Star Weekly, September 9, 1933, 3
3. Chaplin Rev. Albert Ewert, The Little Book” (Jackson: Jackson State Prison)
4. Ewert, The Little Book, 3-5
5. A. M. Smith, “Reform Or Stay In Jail!”, The Detroit News, April 29, 1934, 4
6. Detroit Free Press, December 7, 1934, 1
7. Griffen, “Prisoners of the Air”, 3
8. "Correspondences with Inmates, 1933-1935," Albert M. Ewert Collection, Box 3, Folder:7, Archives of Michigan, Lansing, Michigan