Women inmates sew 1812 flags for bicentennial celebration

The sew shop at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup is alive with the ticking sounds of Brother sewing machines, with Maryland state and U.S. flags draped over tables and chairs

The sew shop at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup is alive with the ticking of sewing machines. Maryland and U.S. flags are draped over tables and chairs, and sewing patterns for the cross bottony, the red-and-white cross on the state flag, are hung neatly in a corner of the room.

Seven inmates bent over sewing machines are responsible for the meticulous creation of the U.S. and Maryland flags that fly in front of state buildings.

Though these women usually sew traditional national and state flags, they have switched their focus to 1812-style flags like the 10-by-12-foot one that hangs in the front of the assembly line. These flags bear 15 stars and 15 stripes and are being made for the celebration of the War of 1812's bicentennial.

A directive issued by Gov. Martin O'Malley in September ordered all public facilities owned by the state to replace old flags with 1812 star-spangled banners. The women who make the flags work as employees of Maryland Correctional Enterprises, which provides inmates with work opportunities to increase employability upon release.

"The goal is to train inmates … so when they are released, they don't wind up back in here," said Renata Seergae, public information officer for MCE.

Inmates create about 700 flags each year and are paid between $1.25 and $3.85 per hour, Seergae said. So far, 60 of the bicentennial 1812 flags have been sewn.

Julia Applegate, 44, said she has been making flags for three years. Her favorite part is putting the banners on and knowing that they will be flown proudly in front of state buildings.

"It's exciting, I think," said Applegate, who said she was serving a sentence for a robbery conviction.

Natasha Fowlkes, 35, is the "line leader" at the sew shop and is in charge of making sure everyone is trained well and doing their jobs.

"I basically show everybody how to sew," said Fowlkes, who declined to say why she was incarcerated. Electronic court records show she was convicted of first-degree assault and other charges in 2008 and sentenced to 28 years.

Fowlkes mirrored Applegate's pride in her work and said that she never used to pay attention to flags but that she has developed an appreciation for their technical beauty. She had no prior sewing experience but said she now pays attention to every little detail on the flags that she sees.

She said that the program has given her an opportunity to specialize in something that she truly enjoys. Fowlkes wants to become "a professional flag lady" someday.

"You've got to do something that you like. … If there's a flag place out there, I'm going to try and find it," Fowlkes said.


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