Women Prisoners Sew Flags to Celebrate What They Don't Have--Freedom
06/14/2011
Elkridge Patch

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Inside the barbed wire-encircled campus of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW) sits a handful of sewing machines. Each day from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., seven women report for work on what they call the "flag line."

Members of the flag line sew more than 700 flags a year for government and nonprofit agencies. For the most part, they spend their time creating three types of flags: Maryland, American and Department of Corrections.

Natasha Fowlkes, 35, is the leader of the flag line. She trains the others, many of whomólike her when she startedódon't know how to sew.

"I teach them everything," said Fowlkes, who has been at MCIW since 2008. "I teach them how to sew, how to cut, how to draw the logos...."

All flags in Maryland that adorn public buildings and state government institutions are produced at the Jessup prison and have been for 70 years. The only prison in the flag-making industry in the state is MCIW, where inmates range from short-term prisoners to lifers.

Recently, the women on the flag line added a new pattern to their repertoire: the War of 1812 flag.

In 2010, Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a proclamation that if an American flag "is no longer a fitting emblem for display," it should be replaced with the War of 1812 flag, which has 15 stars and 15 stripes rather than the traditional 50 stars and 13 stripes. The governor cited the 200-year anniversary of the War of 1812 and the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" as reasons behind the order.

"When the proclamation came out ... we were asked to construct them," said Renata Seergae, spokeswoman for Maryland Correctional Enterprises, the industrial arm of the prison that employs 2,000 inmates each year. While it is not mandatory to work, many women participate because it keeps them from being idle, said staff, who estimated that inmates received between $1 and $4 a day in pay for making the flags.

To ensure her team could produce the War of 1812 design, Fowlkes had to teach the flag line how to create it. "I'm in the process of teaching them now," she said, explaining that the striping is a challenge since the numbers have changed from 13 to 15 stripes.

Still, the change is welcome, said Fowlkes. "I like the commemorative flag," she said. "I like it because it's new, and I like things that are new."

So far, 60 of the War of 1812 flags have been sold. Maryland Public Television, the Department of Agriculture and other state agencies have purchased them, according to a press release issued by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

"These are women that have no freedom right now, and they are creating the ultimate symbol of freedom," said Seergae. "They think more about the freedom that they once had, and it's a special thing for them. They take pride in it."

Inmates who participate in the employment programs within the Maryland Department of Corrections are, in fact, more likely to retain their freedom after release. According to a state study, participants have a 60 percent lower recidivism rate than inmates who do not work while behind the fence.

"When I'm sewing, I concentrate on nothing but sewing these flags," said Julia Applegate, 44, who has been at MCIW for almost five years for robbery. "When I'm sewing, my mind's not out there in the institution. It's a totally different environment inside this shop." Applegate said she is due for parole any day.