By Marc Kovac
In about a week, the eyes of state lawmakers and invited guests at the Medina Performing Arts Center will be focused on Gov. John Kasich as he offers his fourth State of the State address.
For the entire evening, those same eyes will be resting on the work of Kristin Jorris and Tomeka Lewis and a handful of other prison inmates who spent recent weeks planning and stitching together the oversized Ohio flag that will serve as a backdrop for the governor’s annual joint-address to the Legislature.
For the third-consecutive year, inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, through the Ohio Department of Corrections’ Ohio Penal Industries program, have sewed massive lengths of fabric into an auditorium curtain adorned with the larger-than-life banner.
In the process, the inmates are learning a trade and positioning themselves for jobs once their incarceration has ended.
“A lot of them, before they came here, don’t understand that it’s important in your life that you give something to the community, but you also earn a living,” said Cindy Salzgaber, industry manager in correctional industries at the prison. “So a lot of them that haven’t had jobs understand that it’s important to come to work every day, to get along with the people that you work with and also how to take orders from your bosses, respect — all of the things that we grew up knowing how to do, we try to teach here.”
There are more than 1,400 inmates across the state involved in industry activities, working on farms or making office furniture and janitorial supplies and other products that are then used in prisons or sold to other government agencies, schools and nonprofit groups, said JoEllen Smith, state prisons spokeswoman.
The efforts are self-sustaining business operations that receive no support from the state’s general revenue fund, she said.
Three years ago, staff in the governor’s office were trying to figure out a decent backdrop for Kasich’s first on-the-road State of the State speech. It turned out the best place to get a garrison-sized Ohio standard was from the state prison system, which has its own flag shop.
More than three dozen women at the Marysville reformatory work on sewing lines, making flags. Some are small, about the size of a folded newspaper. Others are gigantic, like the ones the governor donated to theaters in Steubenville and Lima after his past two State of the State speeches and the one he’ll leave behind this month in Medina.
This year’s flag, including the black fabric background, is about 40 feet wide and more than 22 feet tall, Salzgaber said. Rolled up for transport, it weighs about 15 pounds.
Prison officials took the flag to Medina a few days ago, and it’s already hanging in the auditorium in advance of Kasich’s speech.
It takes time to plan the flag, with fabric pieces cut and placed on the floor in a large open space in the prison workshop. The actual sewing takes about a week, with eight inmates involved in the process, Salzgaber said.
Not that it’s easy.
“The material is so much bigger,” said Lewis, who is serving a 10-year sentence on two drug-related convictions. “Our machines only accommodate small pieces of fabric, so when we have to maneuver the bigger pieces, it gets to be more difficult as we’re sewing it.”
“It takes a lot of skill and teamwork,” added Jorris, who is serving 15 years for involuntary manslaughter.
Jorris already knew how to sew, but the process was new to Lewis. She learned initially by making mops — the workshop at the women’s prison binds together mops that are used in all of the state’s prisons.
Through prison industries, they’re honing skills that could land them full-time employment once they complete their terms.
“It brings women opportunity,” said Ronette Burkes, warden at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. “... They’re learning job skills, they’re learning things that make them more employable in society. But not only that … they’re learning how to interact with people; they’re learning how to work in a professional environment. They’re learning what the expectations will be of them when they go out and return to society.”
The finished flag runs close to $500, and staff members in the governor’s office pay the cost out of their own pockets.