BERGHOLZ, Ohio — Bare feet and work boots shuffle on the wooden floor of the Amish schoolhouse as the children settle into tight rows of scuffed metal desks across the room from their parents — the men on one set of benches, women on another, some cradling younger children.
They've gathered to celebrate the end of school, but no one claps or cheers. The only voices raised are those of the students as they begin singing, the melodies rising and dipping like the surrounding hills. A warm breeze carries the religious lyrics, mostly in German, through the open windows and over the fields where families will mingle afterward.
The ceremony is typically in late April, but this school year was cut short to allow some youngsters a few more days of family time before their parents leave for federal prison.
Come Friday, four women and one man from this tight-knit group in rural eastern Ohio will enter the prison system in various states, joining nine already behind bars on hate crimes convictions for hair- and beard-cutting attacks against fellow Amish.
That timing made Tuesday's event the last big gathering before the five depart, and the participants gave The Associated Press a rare glimpse into their largely insular community. Men played baseball in buttoned shirts, work boots and blue pants with suspenders. Their wives, some barefoot, sat outdoors on benches from the schoolhouse, chatting as their long-sleeved, blue and green dresses and white head scarves fluttered in the wind. Their children snacked and relaxed nearby, dressed like smaller versions of their parents.
"It's a happy day on the outside, but not on the inside. On the inside, a lot of times we're crying, but we have to keep our spirits up for the children's sake," said Martha Mullet, whose husband, Sam Mullet Sr., was accused of orchestrating the hair-cutting attacks and was sentenced to 15 years, the longest term of the 16 defendants in the case.
She said she believes the government is trying to split up the community, but members are determined to ensure the survival of the breakaway group her husband founded.
Those who were attacked allege he led in authoritarian style, and at least one person described it as a cult where members' "minds were programmed in the wrong way by Sam Mullet."
Mullet's family denounces that description. Such communities typically limit interaction with news media, but members of Mullet's group in Bergholz said they were willing to talk because they feel they've been treated unfairly by the justice system.
The Amish, who shun many facets of modern life, are deeply religious and believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry, which means cutting the hair would be shameful and offensive.
Prosecutors brought hate crimes charges because they said they believed the attacks were spurred by religious differences.
The defendants don't deny the hair-cuttings — some say they regret what happened, others don't — but contend they stemmed from family disputes that should have been handled internally. They say they're bound by different rules guided by their religion, that the government had no business getting involved in what they did and that calling it a hate crime was overreaching.
"We're not exactly saying it was wrong, and we don't say it's right, either. ... It's something that will never happen again, I can tell you that," Wilma Mullet, a daughter of Sam Mullet. She was not among those charged.
All 16 defendants appealed, arguing the group's conviction, sentencing and imprisonment in separate facilities as far away as Louisiana, Minnesota and Connecticut violates constitutional rights and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Prosecutors reject that argument.
The defendants say the distance to the facilities is too great to travel by horse-drawn buggy or even by using a hired driver, so most of their families likely won't be able to visit. They plan to keep in touch through letters and occasional phone calls.
The five reporting to prison Friday said they are somewhat scared and unsure what to expect but are hopeful about being released early for good behavior. They're sewing clothes, plowing ground and finishing other chores to make life easier for their loved ones while they're gone. Two women, assigned to prisons in Minnesota, were bracing for their first plane ride.
Their departure will leave nearly three dozen children without one or both parents in a culture where the men and women have distinct roles, so the adults made alternative arrangements.
Linda and Emanuel Schrock's oldest children will look after the younger ones while the Schrocks are imprisoned over the next two years. The spouses of Anna Miller and Freeman Burkholder and the 15 children combined from the two families will act as one household while Miller and Burkholder serve one-year sentences. The spouses are brother and sister, and the children all cousins.
Lovina Miller is beginning a similar sentence and giving Martha Mullet custody of her eight children until she returns because her husband is in Massachusetts on a seven-year sentence.
Before the trial, the Amish rejected plea agreements that offered leniency and might have helped young mothers avoid prison.
Several said Tuesday that they rejected deals either because they didn't want to admit guilt to a hate crime charge or they didn't want to testify against Mullet Sr. and say things they don't believe.1 comment on this story
The community members say they're working together to ensure the group perseveres by handling chores that would have been the responsibility of the incarcerated members. The remaining men especially bear the burden of extra work, making home repairs and fixing fences and handling planting and harvesting. A 19-year-old grandson has taken over running Sam Mullet's 700-acre farm.
"It's hard, but I'm still surprised we can do as good as we do," said Emma Miller, who leaves Friday for a prison in West Virginia.
She and the other new inmates also face big changes as they adjust to prison life. The women can wear jumper dresses, and they hope to continue wearing head scarves. Under the prison rules, the men can keep their beards.
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