Members of the Amish beard-cutting sect discovered pool and Mountain Dew in prison


The horse-drawn carriage used by Kathryn and Raymond Miller in Bergholz, Ohio. (Reuters/Kim Palmer)

Two Amish former inmates in the federal penitentiary system recently spoke about what it’s like to return to the outside after spending time around all the modern amenities offered by life in prison. Raymond and Kathryn Miller were part of the infamous Amish “beard-cutting” gang. The married Bergholz, Ohio, couple told Reuters that life after incarceration presented a lot of questions they never thought they’d have to answer: for instance, whether or not it might be okay for them to buy a pool table and what to do about all the telemarketers calling their new, probation-mandated telephone.

“We get salesman calls about electric bills, and they don’t believe that we don’t have an electric bill,” Raymond Miller said of the phone that now sits in his home so he can call his probation officer every day. The member of the Old Order Amish must also wear an electronic ankle bracelet while outside doing farm work, he said.

Here’s more from the Reuters interview on the Millers’ time in prison:

“I read, played softball and played pool. I liked pool and I was pretty good at it,” Raymond said.

“I think we could get a pool table at Sam’s,” he said, referring to [bishop and leader Sam] Mullet’s home, which has a large meeting room for church services. “I think it would be alright.”

Kathryn, 25, who also learned the game, shook her head “no” in the background.

“I like to play pool but we are not allowed to play pool here,” Kathryn said. “The girls in prison gave me a hard time that I was gambling.”

Kathryn added that she took yoga and step classes while behind bars.

The Millers are two of 16 followers of Sam Mullet, who in 2011 led a series of attacks on other Amish members in Ohio. The attacks involved the humiliating act of cutting beards (on men) and hair (on women), which is left long and uncut as part of their faith. The group was sentenced in 2013 — Mullet for 13 years; and the others anywhere from one to seven years.

Although prisons do have policies to accommodate religious belief, incarceration and life after prison has presented some unique challenges to the Millers. The federal system holding them, as required by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Acts, allows some modification to the traditional prison uniform for those with religious restrictions on dress. Kathryn Miller, for instance, wore a long brown dress and a small head covering, according to the Reuters interview. That fits with the system’s existing rules for accommodating religious headgear and dress. Incarcerated Jewish women may wear head scarves, and Muslim women may wear Hijabs. And men are generally allowed to keep beards in prison for religious reasons, although the Amish requirement against cutting the hair at all gets a little trickier.

In Pennsylvania, for example, where there is a relatively large Amish population, a religious accommodation policy provided by the state’s Department of Corrections has a “grooming exemption request” system for inmates who wish to keep their beards long for religious reasons. The state system allows inmates to keep uncut beards, so long as they “wash and maintain his hair/beard in an acceptable fashion,” i.e. one that is “easily searched.” In general, however, there are no regulations on the state or federal level specifically meant to accommodate incarcerated Amish. Pennsylvania accommodates other religious requests on an individual basis by considering the “least restrictive” means to meet a religious requirement, the sincerity of the request, and the potential security impact of accommodating it.

There’s also the issue of children. The Millers have three young kids, who stayed with Kathryn’s mother during the overlapping portions of their parents’ sentences. Kathryn told Reuters that her youngest “still asks for my mom a lot,” even after she’s returned to life with her family. An earlier Reuters report on the group’s incarceration explained that there are nearly 50 children between all of Mullet’s followers. While the justice system allowed some staggering of sentences for married couples, the small community of about 26 families total still faced an unprecedented issue of child care. Some imprisoned women, they reported, gave legal custody of their kids to other members in order to avoid having the children taken out of their community. And because, with few exceptions, the Amish rely on horse and buggy for transportation, family visits were a hardship for members of the community who served in federal prisons in Minnesota, Illinois, Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia, Connecticut and Texas.

All that being said, Slate wrote up a good explainer a couple of years ago detailing why exposure to technology — a prohibition generally not accommodated by prison systems – might not violate Amish belief in the way one would assume:

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.

Of course, the Millers followed Mullet, a theologically conservative leader even by Amish standards. And dealing with modern amenities in the prison system is different from the typical Amish navigation of their lifestyle in a modern world. In many cases, they face a combination of saturation and a lack of choice. “I didn’t feel like I was Amish,” Kathryn said of her time in prison. And it’s not clear how long, if ever, it could take the Millers to fully return to their old life. For instance, Raymond told Reuters that prison gave him a taste for another modern delicacy: Mountain Dew.

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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