Cleveland, Ohio - The fractured Amish community of Bergholz is distraught over news that bishop Samuel Mullet and seven of his hate crime co-defendants have been assigned to prisons scattered across the country - some as far as 1,000 miles away.
Samuel Mullet originally had been designated to serve his 15-year sentence in Loretto, Pa. - the same low-security federal correctional institution where former Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo is being housed. But over the weekend, Mullet was notified that he had been "re-designated" to a prison in Texarkana, Texas.
Mullet's three sons and the other men have been assigned to prisons in Minnesota, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Illinois, rather than the Elkton prison in Lisbon, Ohio, which is the closest to their rural homes in Jefferson County, about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland. All were sentenced to between two and seven years behind bars.
The trial of the 67-year-old bishop and 15 of his followers attracted national attention as the U.S. Justice Department used a federal hate crimes statute to prosecute the defendants for a series of beard- and hair-shearing attacks on perceived enemies of their breakaway sect.
They were sentenced last month by U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster. Mullet's followers, including three of his sons, received shorter prison terms for the attacks.
On Monday, the bishop's defense lawyer, Edward Bryan, sent a three-page personal letter to Polster notifying him of the prison assignments and begging him to help right a wrong.
"Your honor, I have very serious concerns that these designations are not being made in the interests of justice," Bryan wrote. "If the defendants are housed in separate facilities, all outside a reasonable travel distances from their families, our clients will experience additional hardships not anticipated by your honor when you imposed sentence."
Polster said in an interview Monday that he can make recommendations on where inmates serve their sentences, but the assignment decisions are in the hands of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
"I don't have the authority to designate anyone," Polster said. "I'm not going to issue an order on this, and I don't think it's appropriate to discuss the letter or what, if anything, I'm going to do."
Polster added, "I typically recommend the closest suitable facility to their residence so their family members have the best opportunity to visit them."
Bryan said he contacted an official with the Bureau of Prisons, who told him the assignments of the Amish defendants were based on "security concerns" discovered in the defendants' pre-sentence reports, and "population concerns" in the Northeast.
Chris Burke, a spokesman with the Bureau of Prisons, said efforts are usually made to accommodate a judge's request and to place inmates in prisons located within 500 miles of their homes.
But Burke said population constraints and security concerns are valid reasons for sending inmates to distant locations and for separating inmates from each other. Other considerations are an inmate's age, medical and psychological issues, he said.
"I cannot comment on the individual placements of particular inmates," Burke said, declining to address the Amish locations. "Our designations are not permanent. There is a chance that in a year or two they could ask for a transfer closer to home, although the same concerns would apply."
Bryan noted that throughout the three-week trial last August and September, those defendants not being held in jail, as well as their family members and supporters, made daily round-trips to Cleveland at considerable expense.
To continue to receive visits from spouses and their 49 children would be financially and realistically prohibitive with the men being held at such faraway locations, Bryan said.
The lawyer made a final desperate plea to the judge in his letter.
"I am not sure what assistance you may be able to provide regarding this matter, but I respectfully request on behalf of our clients and their families that you inquire into this matter."