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Texas State Symbol Sewn by Slaves

Designers of the Texas state flag meant for its red, white and blue colors to represent bravery, loyalty and purity. But the flag of the Lone Star state also represent modern-day prison slavery.

For more than 20 years, female prisoners at the Hilltop Unit (prison) near Gatesville have been the sole manufacturer of state flags. In 1997 the 15 female prisoners assigned to the flag-making operation stitched together more than 14,000 flags. The women, who spend eight hours a day cutting, sewing and inspecting flags, are paid nothing for their labor.

Most schools and state buildings fly the slave-made banners. But those flags account for a relatively small portion of the Gatesville prison's output. Most of the flags are handed out by state officials to members of the public; a cheap way for politicians to garner goodwill among their (non-incarcerated) constituency.

"The state flag is a tremendous symbol and provides a real sense of pride for our citizens," said State Rep. Sherri Greenburg (D-Austin), whose office presents up to 150 flags a month to people who request them. The $11, 3-by-5 foot flags come in cotton or nylon and can be flown briefly over the state capitol if people request it.

Greenburg sees nothing wrong with unpaid state prisoners sewing the flags. "It is important to the citizens of this state that these people are actually working," she said.

But Pete Van de Putte, a San Antonio flag maker puts a different spin on it. "They are enemies of this very society, people that have chosen to take the other route," Van de Putte said. "There is something inherently wrong with the fact that our state flag is being made by convicted felons."

Though Van de Putte refutes the practice with passionate anti-prisoner moralizing, the fact that his company can't compete with unpaid slave labor is more likely the source of his indignation.

Van de Putte's family founded the Dixie Flag Manufacturing Company in 1958 and used to manufacture both U.S. and Texas flags. But when the state decided in the 1970s to purchase only state flags made by prisoners, Van de Putte said Dixie Flag suffered.

"Here you've got people that are paying taxes and providing employment and feeding their families. Government has no business competing with that," he said.

Austin American Statesman

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