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September 25, 2012

"What Happens When the Amish Go to Prison?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Slate piece, which is especially timely in the wake of last week's high-profile convictions of a large group of Amish beard-cutters on federal hate-crime charges.  Here is how the piece starts:

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.”

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September 25, 2012 at 09:12 AM | Permalink

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See US v. Slabaugh 852 F2d 1081 (8th cir 1988)After conviction of one-armed Amish farmer photograpgh compelled

Posted by: scott tilsen | Sep 25, 2012 10:15:13 AM

I would like to know who wrote this article and how I can get in touch with them. Thank you.

Brad Clanton
601-454-8794

Posted by: Brad Clanton | Oct 12, 2012 1:15:57 AM

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In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB