FLAG DAY | Maryland inmates sew flags for state

Saturday is Flag Day and for citizens across the country the Stars and Stripes could hold a range of meanings: opportunity, liberty, pride. But for the inmates of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women it's a job and a reminder of what they're working toward.

Orange may be the new black on Netflix, but at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women the colors are red, white and blue. 

It's not lost on inmate Jennifer Dalton, the reality that for five days a week she is crafting the very symbol of freedom she's serving 20 years in prison to retain. 

Dalton, originally of Baltimore, is one of the inmates who works in the cut shop for Maryland Correctional Enterprises, the prison industry arm of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In Maryland, by law, government institutions that purchase American or Maryland flags must make the prison and the women who staff the shop their first choice destination. 

"At first it was a drag," Dalton said. "I didn't want to do it. You're still stuck in that mindset that somebody is going to come and get you and that you're going to go home. Once you accept that it is what it is … you can make so much more out of it." 

Dalton is serving a 20-year sentence for robbery and assault charges stemming from an incident in Woodlawn in 2009. 

"Horrible. It's horrible. I wish I had never done it," Dalton said. "I wish I could take it back. I wish that someone had never been hurt. I've never hurt anyone in my life. To think that I was involved in something like that is horrible." 

Dalton is a recovering from her addiction to prescription painkillers. Court records show that she has already completed a number of recovery programs and wellness classes through the prison system. 

On June 11, 2009, Dalton drove three young people who would get out of her car and severely injure a man with a baseball bat before taking his iPod and backpack. The man was knocked unconscious and was rushed to Shock Trauma in critical condition. The victim required facial construction surgery and additional treatment that cost about $22,000, court records show. 

Attorneys in the case argued over Dalton's role in the crime. Was she just a driver who took three young people to the gas station, unaware they were going to nearly kill a man? Or was she a mother figure who looked after them, the three "kids" who were friends with her son? Did she orchestrate the robbery?  

The state pressed for a 40-year sentence for attempted murder. The three made off with roughly $150 in stolen goods. In the end, Dalton is serving two consecutive 10-year sentences for first-degree assault and armed robbery. 

"If I could turn back the hands of time it would be a different story," Dalton said. "I think about it every day. Hopefully I'll become a better person because of it." 

Dalton is investing her time inside in the sew shop. Court records indicate that her supervisor noted that she has an "above average" work habit. 

"When I was home, because of my addiction, I just didn't do anything," Dalton said. "I had a husband to take care of me and I took that for granted. I didn't have a job to go to every day and I didn't care to. Here I get up every morning. I'm at work every day. I enjoy what I do. And I look forward to it. … If you can do that in here you can absolutely do it out there." 

Dalton started taking prescribed pain killers in her late 20s. She's now 39 years old. She suffered from endometriosis, a painful disorder that causes cells from the uterus to grow in other parts of the body. She also suffered from osteoarthritis in her back. 

"I didn't handle it the right way," she said. 

She wakes up every day at 4:30 a.m. before hitting the sew shop by 6:30 a.m.

As she works on the flags, measuring, cutting and stitching the red and white strips, she thinks of where they're going. 

"It makes me feel good, especially when I know they're going to someone who has died, like a veteran," she said. 

Last year, she completed a rush order for two flags for one of the correctional officers who died in a car crash. 

"That one I'll remember," she said. 

According to Maryland Correctional Enterprises spokeswoman Ashley Lohr, the program has a record of success in reducing recidivism.  

"If you look at the general population of the Department of Public Safety nearly one in two people have a chance of reoffending and coming back into the system," Lohr said. "If that offender were with an MCE program for a year they decrease their chance for recidivism to less than one in four."

Lohr said MCE jobs are preferred by inmates who might otherwise work in the kitchen, in the yard or in sanitation. 

"They learn work skills. They learn work ethics. That'll help them when they're release," Lohr said. "Finding a job is really difficult. The jobs skills they learn here they can put a resume. They learn how to work as part of a team and they can bring that back into the world upon their release." 

Donna Beck, regional manager

to the textiles division for Maryland Correctional Enterprise, said the inmates produced and sold 800 flags in the last fiscal year.  

"For the amount of operators they keep busy," Beck said. 

"Just to say that we took this fabric from a roll and made it into a Maryland flag or U.S. flag and we were able to train the inmate workforce to do that, that's an accomplishment," Beck continued. "I know the ladies are quite proud of what they produce and I know the supervisors as well are." 

Dalton said the experience has brought her closer to her mother. 

"It's kind of unique for me," she said. 

Dalton's mother was a German immigrant. 

"I always thought she was a little cooky because she would cry whenever the National Anthem was played at baseball games or football games," Dalton said. 

"I didn't realize until we went to get her U.S. citizenship how important it was for her. Unfortunately I'm incarcerated, but the plus side is I make these flags so I do see now how important it is to her. These flags will live forever for those families that don't have their loved ones anymore. It's very special." 

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