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Inmates Make Flags That Fly High : Demand Exceeds Production at Tehachapi Prison

April 19, 1985|PETER BENNETT

For the inmates of the California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi, 1984 was a banner year.

Their expectations for 1985 are flying even higher.

Behind heavily armed guard towers and 10-foot prison fences spun with barbed wire, the inmates make most of the U.S. and California Bear Flags that fly in the courts, parks and classrooms of Los Angeles. The men are so busy, in fact, that they can't keep up with demand.

Supervisor G. A. Rafeedie, a state employee, believes that the Olympics were responsible in part for the leap in production from 300 flags a month to the current level of more than 700 a month.

"At one time we were more than four months behind," Rafeedie said, "but working double shifts seven days a week has cut the backlog to about 30 days." Rafeedie added that the inmates receive straight pay, not overtime rates, for their extra work.

First Shift at 6:30 a.m.

The first shift of inmates punches in at 6:30 a.m. The men come wearing navy blue denim jeans and sky blue denim shirts also manufactured at the plant. They take two 10-minute breaks and a 45-minute lunch. The afternoon shift works from 3 to 11 p.m.

The noise that the prisoners and their machines generate is a steady, almost businesslike hum. The prisoners are serving time as well as making flags.

"We not only teach a skill by on-the-job training, but we emphasize work habits that you have to have if you want to hold a job on the street," Rafeedie said. "If a man comes here with a desire to work, we're here to teach him." The state gets the flags it desperately needs, and the inmates earn the money they need. "One of the contributions of working here is that it not only takes a person's idle time away from him, but gives him funds that he can send to his family or buy something with," Rafeedie said. "That tends to make a more congenial atmosphere out on the yard."

Each inmate falls into one of four pay categories: labor, unskilled, technician or skilled. "Everybody starts out at entry level unless you have experience from another institution," Rafeedie explained.

Three times a year Rafeedie buys 40,000 yards of cotton bunting from which the flags are made. His specifications for the cloth are rigorous.

Cloth Has pH Factor of 7

"It has to have a pH factor of seven," Rafeedie said. "And it cannot have more than 1% of contaminants in the way of soaps, oils and caustic sodas that they use in processing and finishing."

Good cloth assures better registration in the silk-screening process, according to Rafeedie, who was a production manager for 12 years at Soledad before coming to Tehachapi.

The bunting is first stretched on metal frames, which is just one of 25 steps needed to complete one flag.

The stretched bunting is then ready for silk-screening. The California Bear Flag takes five different, colored inks, all of which must be dried and cured separately in an oven for 10 minutes at 300 degrees. Because the flag has identical sides, the same process is repeated.

Inmate Dan Westmoreland supervises the silk-screening operation. He has sharp, handsome features, sandy hair and talks like a shop foreman. He doesn't feel any irony in the fact that he is making flags for California, the same statethat put him behind bars. "I think of it as a job, and I think everybody back here does the same thing," he said. "It's a matter of producing something and being happy with what you're doing. I don't mean to sound unpatriotic, but what I'm saying is it's just a matter of personal pride. We do the best we can. As a result, everyone benefits."

One Screening for U.S. Flag

The U.S. flag undergoes only one silk-screening. The star field is printed, dried and sent to the weavers, who sew it together with the 13 bars and stripes.

The widths of the bars and stripes are cut from red and white cloth by a slitting machine. The slitter makes short and long strips. First the short bars and stripes are sewn to the star field, and then the long ones are attached. All of the bars and stripes step down or overlap each other from top to bottom to keep water from collecting on the flag in rainy weather.

A white collar with grommets is fastened to the rest of the flag with a lock stitch. The collar serves to reinforce the flag and close off any loose stitches. Also the head of the flag, which whips in the wind, is triple stitched.

"Each step along the way, from when we make the stripes and when we print, there's an inspection," said an inmate, who wished to remain anonymous. "We don't believe in producing seconds."

Two men carefully fold the finished flag, making sure that the star field is always facing the front. The standard 4-by-6-foot flag weighing about half a pound is later sealed in plastic and placed in a carton for shipping. The institute, formerly a women's prison until the 1952 Tehachapi earthquake closed it, fabricates six different sizes of flags.

Flags Should Last a Year

The flags under normal conditions should last at least a year, but Tehachapi's canyon winds and 4,500-foot elevation wear them out much faster.

"This area is a good testing ground for them," Rafeedie said.

Because the inmates are constantly using scissors, knives and needles, all of which are potential weapons, there is tight tool control and accountability.

"Every tool that is checked out is accounted for," Rafeedie said. "All tools are in before anybody goes anywhere. And then the men have to pass custodial people before they go out into the yard."

Rafeedie downplayed the hazard of convicts working with the tools that are critical to their craft.

"It's not really a problem," he said "because most of the inmates are very protective of their jobs, although an inmate occasionally likes to play games and hide a tool." Bennett is a Times editorial employee.

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