Sixteen members of a breakaway Amish sect were convicted of hate crimes in Ohio on Thursday. The jury found them guilty of violently shaving the hair and beards of disfavored members of the community, and they now face up to 20 years in prison. How do American prisons accommodate the old-fashioned religious practices of Amish people?
They don’t, for the most part. State and federal prison systems don’t have special regulations for the tiny number of Amish serving extended sentences, many of them for sex offenses. The Amish reject most modern technology and dress. In prison, however, their cells have electric lighting and climate control, they wear orange jumpsuits, and they are transported between the prison and the courthouse in vans, just like other inmates. Prison administrators generally require prisoners to keep their beards trimmed, but wardens sometimes allow exceptions for religious reasons.
U.S. prisons are required to accommodate religious beliefs under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, but inmates’ religious freedoms are tempered by security and cost concerns. Striking this balance has proven challenging for judges. In the case of facial hair, for example, courts have struck down outright beard bans, but agreed with wardens that excessively long or unkempt facial hair prevents guards from quickly identifying inmates. Prisoners who require special meals have also met with mixed responses. An inmate can demand a halal meal, but it is often just the prison’s vegetarian meal, because the facility refuses to pay the added expense of halal butchering.
Amish inmates who are forced by the state to use electricity or wear brightly colored clothing aren’t violating their religious beliefs in quite the same way as, for example, an Orthodox Jew who is fed non-kosher food. Amish are allowed to use modern technology under certain circumstances: Amish farmers often rent lighted stalls at farmers’ markets, and members of liberal communities hire drivers to transport them to supermarkets for weekly shopping. The prohibition has more to do with excessive engagement with modern technology. Amish people are not supposed to wire their homes or own automobiles, because those behaviors might distract them from the values of community, humility, and simplicity, and violate what they view as one of the Bible’s most central commandments: “Be not conformed to this world.”
Complying with the church commandments isn’t such a problem for many Amish inmates, because the church usually excommunicates members who commit crimes of violence or depravity before they enter prison. The ex-convict may be able to rejoin the church after release if he confesses and apologizes.
County jails, which hold detainees for shorter periods, are more accommodating than long-term prisons to Amish detainees. In the 1950s and ’60s, many Amish fathers served short stints in these facilities for refusing to send their children to public high schools. (The U.S. Supreme Court freed them from this obligation in 1972.) Their jailers typically allowed them to wear traditional conservative clothing and long beards. While jails aren’t as casual as they once were, they still show some flexibility. Last year, a jail in Mayfield, Ky., special-ordered nine dark-colored jumpsuits for a group of Amish men sentenced to a few days for refusing to place reflective triangles on their horse-drawn buggies.
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Explainer thanks Susan Bensinger of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Sarah Gerwig-Moore of Mercer Law School and Steve Nolt of Goshen College, co-author of The Amish Way.
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