Amish Religious Fanatics Jailed for Hate Crimes


16 Amish men, women face unfamiliar life in federal prison for hate crimes
Prison sentences range from one to 15 years

CLEVELAND – Sixteen Amish men and women who have lived rural, self-sufficient lives surrounded by extended family and with little outside contact are facing regimented routines in a federal prison system where almost half of inmates are behind bars for drug offenses and modern conveniences such as television will be a constant temptation.

The defendants, all members of the same Amish sect, were convicted in September of hate crimes in 2011 attacks meant to shame fellow Amish they believed were straying from the strict religious interpretations espoused by the sect’s leader. Fifteen of them received sentences ranging from one to seven years; the ringleader, Samuel Mullet Sr., got 15 years.

Prison rules will allow the 10 men convicted in beard- and hair-cutting attacks on fellow Amish in eastern Ohio to keep their religiously important beards, but they must wear standard prison uniforms instead of the dark outfits they favor. Jumper dresses will be an option for the six Amish women, who will be barred from wearing their typical long, dark dresses and bonnets.

It’s unclear where the Amish will serve their sentences, but some of the nearest options include men’s prisons in Elkton, a 90-minute drive southeast of Cleveland, and in Loretto, Pa., and women’s prisons in Lexington, Ky., and Alderson, W.Va. The dates they have to report could come any day.

Visits from family members might be difficult since they don’t drive modern vehicles. During the trial, relatives hired van drivers to take them more than 100 miles to the trial in Cleveland, where they often filled most courtroom seats.

“Amish people grow up with very strong communal connections and large extended families and participating in community activities, so being suddenly severed from that and isolated would certainly be a major change,” said Donald Kraybill, a longtime Amish researcher and professor at Elizabethtown College in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country.

They all rejected plea deals that offered leniency, with some young mothers turning down possible chances for probation.

Amish communities have a highly insular, modest lifestyle, are deeply religious and believe in following the Bible, which they believe instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry.

Prosecutors say the 16 defendants targeted hair because it carries spiritual significance, hence the hate crime prosecution. The defendants had argued that the Amish are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government had no place getting involved in what amounted to a family or church dispute.

Most of the men were locked up, often in less strict local jails, after their arrests and will have some idea of what to expect in prison. The women remained free during the trial, and several have asked to stay out of prison during their appeals. The judge has rejected at least one such request, and more are pending.

The timing for moving those locked up to federal prisons and for those still at home to report to begin serving terms will be up to the prison system. When they report, they will be in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The beard-cutting defendants aren’t likely to see many fellow Amish in prison. In the Amish region east of Cleveland where one of the attacks took place, Trumbull County Sheriff Thomas

Altiere has seen only one Amish inmate in his 20 years as sheriff, and Kraybill, the researcher, knows of just one current Amish inmate.

Attorney John Pyfer, who has represented hundreds of Amish in Pennsylvania in the past 40 years, said: “I just don’t think there’s a lot of Amish that go to prison, and certainly not federal prison.” The federal prisons bureau doesn’t keep figures of how many Amish inmates it has held over the years.

The federal system doesn’t prohibit locking up relatives in the same facility, so the defendants could wind up at some of the same locations. The defendants include Mullet Sr., four of his children, his son-in-law, three nephews and the spouses of a niece and nephews.

The response to the jailing of one beard-cutting defendant highlighted the closeness of Amish families, said Altiere, the sheriff. While two relatives visited the defendant, more than a dozen more prayed behind a glass partition.

Andy Hyde, a defense attorney for two decades in the Amish area around Holmes County south of Cleveland, has represented about 40 Amish defendants over the years and said how they handle lockup varies, much like non-Amish prisoners.

“They don’t all think alike,” he said. “They are as individual as we are, so it’s easy to lump them all together. There are bold, there are aggressive Amish. They are quiet; they are shy.”

Some low-key Amish won’t stand up when threatened in prison, Hyde said, but Mullet Sr. has encouraged a tough outlook.

“Grow up,” he said in a recorded phone call to a jailed son who was among the first arrested in the case. “You can take more than that. I know it’s rough.” Mullet

Sr. wasn’t as confident about his own ability to handle prison. “You’re in there like that — I can understand that real good,” he told his son. “I don’t know if I could handle it.”

The prison system allows an array of religion-dictated head coverings for inmates, including scarves for Jewish women and hijabs for Muslim women and, for men, turbans for Sikhs, headbands for Native Americans and yarmulkes for Jews. Baggy pants and full-length robes mandated by some faiths are prohibited.

Inmates can buy clothing items from a small selection, mostly white T-shirts and gray sweat suits, federal prison system spokesman Chris Burke said.

As for the beards, “That’s not an issue, as long as it doesn’t present some sort of security risk or security hazard, and I’m not aware of any case where that’s happened,” he said.

There’s also the danger of Amish being offended, or even damaged, by access to technology, though some Amish don’t eschew modern conveniences altogether, Kraybill noted. He wrote in his book “The Riddle of Amish Culture” that some Amish have selectively adopted technology, including generators to power farm equipment and refrigerated milk holding tanks.

Kraybill knows one Amish man whose prison job taught him to work with audio equipment. In 1999, four Amish serving time in Iowa for vandalizing a neighbor’s farm were released from jail early in part because officials worried they were being spoiled by television, electric lights and telephones.

Amish may have seen television at a neighbor’s home or in a public area like a restaurant, Kraybill said, “but to have it available constantly would create a whole new temptation for them.”

Religion Aids Criminals Justify Their Crimes


New Study Suggests Religion May Help Criminals Justify Their Crimes

By Justin Peters

An inmate reads his bible.

An inmate reads his bible at the minimum-security facility known as the Carol Vance Unit, March 24, 2001, near Houston, Texas.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

In 1996, noted criminologist Jewel asked a question that has long haunted those hoodlums prone to pondering the existential consequences of their actions: “Who will save your souls after those lies that you told, boy?” For generations of American crooks, the answer has been “religious do-gooders.” As a 2006 Federal Bureau of Prisons report put it, “faith groups have become involved in offering formal programs within prison to bring about not only the spiritual salvation of the inmates but their rehabilitation in the profane world as well.” The idea is that spiritual rebirth may help tame the criminal impulse, and set wild hearts on the straight and narrow.

Maybe not. A new study in the academic journal Theoretical Criminology (hat tip to the Vancouver Sun) suggests that, far from causing offenders to repent of their sins, religious instruction might actually encourage crime. The authors surveyed 48 “hardcore street offenders” in and around Atlanta, in hopes of determining what effect, if any, religion has on their behavior. While the vast majority of those surveyed (45 out of 48 people) claimed to be religious, the authors found that the interviewees “seemed to go out of their way to reconcile their belief in God with their serious predatory offending. They frequently employed elaborate and creative rationalizations in the process and actively exploit religious doctrine to justify their crimes.”

First of all, many interviewees had only a vague notion of the central tenets of their faiths. Take, for example, an 18-year-old robber whose “street name” was Que:

Que: I believe in God and the Bible and stuff. I believe in Christmas, and uh, you know the commitments and what not.

Int: You mean the Commandments?

Que: Yeah that. I believe in that.

Int: Can you name any of them?

Que: Ahhh … well, I don’t know … like don’t steal, and uh, don’t cheat and shit like that. Uhmm … I can’t remember the rest.

Often, the authors found, these knowledge gaps were self-serving. “God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him,” insisted one 33-year-old enforcer for a drug gang, with a vested interest in avoiding damnation for the murders he had committed. A 23-year-old robber called Young Stunna suggested that the circumstances of his upbringing would absolve him of his crimes: “Jesus knows I ain’t have no choice, you know? He know I got a decent heart. He know I’m stuck in the hood and just doing what I gotta do to survive.”

Indeed, many of those surveyed used their understandings of faith to justify their own criminal behavior. A 25-year-old drug dealer called Cool suggested that God doesn’t mind when you do bad things to bad people:

Also another thing is this; if you doing some wrong to another bad person, like if I go rob a dope dealer or a molester or something, then it don’t count against me because it’s like I’m giving punishment to them for Jesus. That’s God’s will. Oh you molested some kids? Well now I’m [God] sending Cool over your house to get your ass.

In the end, the authors found, “there is reason to believe that these rationalizations and justifications may play a criminogenic role in their decision making.”

A couple points. First, this is a really small sample size, and it’s possible that if the authors had surveyed more people over a broader geographical area, their results would have been different. Second, as the authors themselves acknowledge, criminals certainly aren’t the only ones who tend to misunderstand religious teachings, or to contort them for their own benefit. Granted, there aren’t usually violent consequences when your Aunt Sue misunderstands something in the Bible; the worst that happens is that she’s just a little more unbearable at Thanksgiving dinner. But, still, the Theoretical Criminology study shouldn’t be interpreted as conclusive evidence that faith-based outreach and rehabilitation programs are worthless.

But the point is, neither is there conclusive evidence that religion on its own actually helps rehabilitate criminals. This becomes a policy question when we’re talking about prisons. As that Bureau of Prisons report put it, while “religious programs in the correctional setting have been the single most common form of institutional programming for inmates,” nobody really knows whether those programs are effective. There’s not much good data. People tend to use tautological arguments to support religion-based rehabilitation programs. That’s not good enough. If we’re going to talk about whether religion helps rehabilitate criminals, we need to insist on data. Don’t just take it on faith.