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.
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.
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.
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.
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.