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Convicted Ohio Amish face unfamiliar lives in US prison

The Amish men convicted in beard- and hair-cutting attacks will be allowed to keep their religiously important beards in prison. Jumper dresses will be an option for the women.

Mark Law/Steubenville Herald Star via Ap /File 2011

The Amish men convicted in beard- and hair-cutting attacks will be allowed to keep their religiously important beards in prison. Jumper dresses will be an option for the women.

CLEVELAND — After living rural, self-sufficient lives with little outside contact, 16 Amish men and women are facing regimented routines in a federal prison system where almost half of inmates are behind bars for drug offenses and where modern conveniences, such as television, will be a constant temptation.

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 khaki or green work 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 traditional long, dark dresses and bonnets.

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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. Some of the initial assignments include locations in Texas and Louisiana, according to a letter circulating among defense attorneys, and other assignments 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.

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

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

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Amish communities have a highly insular, modest lifestyle. They 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 rejected three such requests Wednesday.

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.

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.

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