Free State's Flags Are Prisoners' Job
New Law Turns Out To Have No Effect

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

If universities offered a course on how to be a state legislator, there's little doubt that high on the list of "dos and don'ts" would be this warning: Never vote against a bill having to do with the American flag.

This reality was not lost on the members of the Maryland legislature this year when a couple of their colleagues offered up a bill mandating that flags flown at official state buildings, both the Stars and Stripes and the state flag, be manufactured in the United States.

The scramble to get on board this bill resembled the rush for the lifeboats on the Titanic.

In the House, 77 delegates became sponsors. In the Senate, 13 members signed on. It passed unanimously. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), no slouch when it comes to navigating political minefields, signed it into law immediately.

This rally-round-the-flag movement was greeted with quiet amusement at the Maryland Department of General Services, which buys the flags that fly in front of more than 50 state facilities.

Every one of the 861 flags it bought last year was made not merely in the United States but in Maryland. And it's unlikely that a penny of the $37,628 spent on those flags will find its way into the pocket of some foreign flag manufacturer.

The state has what might be called a captive workforce.

When they're not busy banging out license plates, the prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup sew flags. There is no shortage of job candidates.

"The only one we don't buy from them is the one that flies atop the William Donald Schaefer Tower in Baltimore," said Dave Humphrey, communications director for the Department of General Services. "That's because it's the Fort McHenry flag, and they don't make that at the prison."

That 1812 reproduction is made in Maryland, too, Humphrey said.

A crew of eight to 10 women sews flags at Jessup, according to prison spokesman Mark Vernarelli, who said they produce about 120 flags each month for sale to nonprofit groups and state and local governments.

"They don't compete with local businesses that sell flags to the public," Vernarelli said.

In addition to state and American flags, the inmates sew ceremonial flags and flags that represent various state agencies, including the Department of Corrections flag flown at prisons.

Vernarellie said he didn't know how long Jessup prisoners have been sewing flags, but he said it was "many, many years." In addition to serving a need, he said, the "very efficient operation" provides prisoners with a useful skill for when they emerge from prison and will continue to produce flags for many years to come.

The urge to insist that state flags be made in the United States is said to be the result of a July 4 trip to Home Depot by Del. H. Wayne Norman Jr.

Norman apparently discovered that the American flag he bought had been manufactured in China. This didn't sit well with him, so he became the lead sponsor of the House bill.

Norman isn't the first state legislator to harbor the belief that the American flag should be made in the United States.

Although several similar flag bills have died in Congress, Minnesota requires that all American flags sold in the state be made in the United States, and Tennessee requires that the state buy its flags from U.S. manufacturers.

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