By Nick DiMarco
From the State House to the courthouse, the Stars-and-Stripes flying this Flag Day morning and throughout the year may be a symbol of “liberty and justice for all.” But the women who sewed them lost their liberty a good while ago in Maryland’s justice system.
The flags flown by government agencies in Maryland are hand-stitched by the inmates of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, women who expect their work will bring them closer to freedom .
Donna Cericole, at right, remembers what it was like to sew for her family many years ago, before she was matching seams on U.S. and state flags in prison.
“I think about it all the time when I’m sewing,” she said. “I have to concentrate on what I’m doing, but I always think about being home and picking up sewing again.”
She is in the home stretch of a five-year sentence for forgery and counterfeiting. She said working on the flags has given her a sense of pride and confidence that she never knew she had.
Working on flags that will go the families of fallen servicemen is what she enjoys doing the most, Cericole said. Her father-in-law was a soldier before he died.
“Putting the flags together is quite difficult and to be picked to do that, I feel honored. I enjoy working with the people I’m working with and it gives you a sense of pride when you finish.”
Cericole and the other women are part of Maryland Correctional Enterprises, which employs over 2,000 inmates in order to enhance their employability after they are released. MCE business units make everything from furniture, food and flags to the traditional license plates, bringing in about $53 million in fiscal 2009 to make the agency self-supporting.
While Cericole says she is looking into seamstress jobs with temp agencies, she says the program has given her so much more in confidence.
It took about two months for Cericole to learn to get the seams right and not make crooked flags, laughing as she recalled the botched banners.
“It’s a confidence builder,” she said. “In my opinion, we don’t have a lot of confidence in ourselves. Being in something like this, it’s nice to see a finished product and say I actually did that.”
The complicated pattern of the Maryland flag is much harder to assemble than its national companion, Cericole said.
“You have to match up all the seams. They’re measured to a certain length and you can’t go over and you can’t go under. It’s got to be a close as you possibly can. When you turn it over to do the side seam, each little area has to match up to the gold and the black and it can’t be off because then you’ll have a crooked flag.”
Cericole’s line-leader, Rozene Smith, the inmate supervisor, doesn’t mind putting Maryland flags together. The black and yellow checkers remind her of her favorite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Smith walks up an down the aisle of the shop helping the women cut and stitch the flags. After spending eight and half years in prison, mostly on drug charges, Smith expects to be going home just in time for Thanksgiving.
She began to tear up when talking about their work on grander flags. Her assembly line assembled the 25-by-40-foot giants that fly over Fort McHenry, memorialized in the Star Spangled Banner.
“It means so much more to people,” Smith said. “Those flags are huge compared to what we do normally, on a daily basis. So they take a lot more time and effort and it’s a lot of responsibility. Because they’re so big you got to make sure everything is sewn properly and is put together the way it’s designed so that it’s going to last.”
Orville Dunnock, who runs the sew shop at the Jessup women’s prison, said Smith has an amazing work ethic and an immaculate attendance record. He said he sometimes has to tell her to leave because she wants to keep working.
“She puts so much pride into this, making sure things are correct,” he said.
The women in the shop are the “highest caliber” inmates, Dunnock said. In order to work on the line, women have to be 90-day infraction free, have a high school diploma or GED and must have only a year left on their sentence.
Inmates make $1.25 a day, on top of incentives, the highest paid job in Maryland Correctional Enterprises, according to Dunnock.
Smith is looking forward to getting back into the workforce once she leaves prison. She is currently enrolled in a college degree program in the prison, but plans to continue school once released.
Smith has a grand plan to obtain a master’s and perhaps to one day work as a researcher for a law firm.
“Having a job with this company, while being incarcerated, has brought me back into the workforce,” she said. “I know what it means to be on time for work and to give a good day’s work … I plan to take whatever skills I have … and plan to do whatever it takes as long as I can obtain and maintain a job. If I have to sew, I’ll sew.”