The Worst Parish in the World,
The Best Parish in the World

Excerpts from the Chaplain's Reports
by Rev. Bryan Eshelman
(1947 to 1948)

Bryan Eshelman succeeded Wayne Hunter as Alcatraz's Protestant Chaplain in 1947. The job included many duties which were not religious, but critical to the men's morale including choosing motion pictures, verifying the identity of correspondents, serving as a member of the classification board, supervising correspondence courses, and running the library. He often functioned as a "Christian therapist" for those struggling to understand why they committed crime. The job demanded one who appreciated liberal theology, with its emphasis on tolerance for many different religious outlooks.

Alcatraz offered its inmates a variety of ways to express spiritual sentiments. Those who took an interest in religious matters could enjoy the personal counsel of either Eshelman or one of the Jesuits who visited from the University of San Francisco; they could (if they were Jewish) take part in prayer services which laymen conducted on the high holidays; they could attend alternating Catholic and Protestant services; and they could read religious books, tracts, pamphlets, and periodicals (often provided at no charge) which were available in the library. Theosophists and followers of Eastern thought took especial pleasure in the popular Pool of Wisdom by J. Krishnamurti. The Protestant classic, Fox's Book of Martyrs, was also well read by inmates who may have identified with the lives of Reformation era victims of persecution.

Only slightly less than a third of Alcatraz's bad men bothered to attend services. A strong disincentive was the choice offered to the prisoners by the Administration: they could either go to Chapel or exercise in the recreation yard on Sundays. Many prisoners preferred to see the chaplain at hours other than those set aside for religious observance. Eshelman (probably rightly) suspected that most inmates avoided even the thought of religion "because it beckons to that sense of responsibility which is so dangerous for one to possess -- it makes one so guilty, so sinful, so much in need of forgiveness."

Rock chaplains were wise to realize the dangers of self-righteousness as they dealt with those for whom churches were just another manifestation of the authoritarian society which saw them incarcerated. While recognizing that he was dealing with a "hardened lot", Eshelman also preached a Gospel to both guard and prisoner which held that "we are all criminals". When struggling for men's salvation, he thought it important to remember that sin and corruption existed outside the jailhouse as well as in it. And, most important of all, that he, too, was imperfect and needed to mind his own soul, particularly since he was entrusted with the care of the worst parish in the world, made the best parish by the opportunities it afforded its pastor for religious outreach and conversion.

The selections in this section offer a varied and thoughtful perspective on the problems of rehabilitating those who many thought to be the nation's worst criminals.

A Chat with an Inmate (August 1947)
Failure is not a Mistake (December 1947)
We Are All Criminals (January 1948)
Portrait of an Inmate (February 1948)
The Subtle Escape of Psychological Irresponsibility (March 1948)

We are all conceived in close prison; in our mothers’ wombs, we are close prisoners all; when we are born, we are born but to the liberty of the house; prisoners still, though within larger walls; and then all our life is but a going out to the place of execution, to death.

-- John Donne (c. 1572–1631), Eighty Sermons, ser. 27 (1640).

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