Inmates on embroidery: 'We take a lot of pride in what we do'

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) The Oregon Legislature and the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution are 250 miles apart, but a tiny piece of cloth links them a little Oregon flag with the state seal embroidered on one side and a beaver on the other.

Inmates stitched the miniature flags. When the Legislature convened last week for the 2013 session, lawmakers found them planted in one corner of their desks inside chambers of leather and polished wood.

Four inmates crafted the flags inside the cavernous and decidedly less posh EOCI garment factory in Pendleton, at the request of Senate President Peter Courtney. Previous flags had displayed only the seal, even though statute describes a beaver on the flipside. Courtney decided to present legislators in the Senate and House with accurate flags that he purchased himself.

The four guys who work in the embroidery shop added Courtney's order to the queue. The team stays busy embroidering clothing, bags, patches, hats and other items for state, federal and non-profit agencies such as schools, National Guard units, police departments and even the Pendleton Round-Up.

These aren't four guys sitting around with needle, embroidery thread and thimbles. Their methods are decidedly higher-octane, involving high-speed, commercial multi-head machines and enough power to satisfy Toolman Taylor.

Leroy Savelesky, a member of the embroidery squad, eyed one of the machines closely on a recent morning in an area awash with fluorescent light. The thrumming machine had six heads, multiple bobbins, tension adjusters and six dozen needles embroidering dozens of Department of Corrections patches for officers' uniforms.

A red light appeared over one of the heads, indicating a broken thread. Savelesky, sporting a pony tail and a tool belt, threaded the needle and restarted the machine.

Each order goes first to the team's digitizer, Jeff Haney, who creates a design. Haney designed the 53?4 by 41?4 flag and shrank the seal and beaver to fit. Because the flag has embroidery on both sides, the flag is folded over on itself. Haney didn't seem taxed though the flag was his first back-to-back (two-sided) embroidery order.

"We can do about any customized work," he said, rubbing his goatee. "Our quality is really good. We take a lot of pride in what we do."

Carlos Caldwell designed a sleeve for the flagpole and stitched the flag's prototype. Caldwell, 49, said he first learned to sew on his grandmother's Singer treadle machine as a boy. When he gets out of prison, he plans to help his wife with her tailoring and alterations business.

Next, a disc containing the design went into an embroidery machine's onboard computer, conveying colors, design and stitch size. The flags were produced en masse under the watchful eye of Savelesky and another team member, Michael Rouse.

The embroidery shop is a microcosm within the voluminous factory. Other inmates bend over sewing machines, producing clothing worn by the state's 15,000 prisoners. Each year, the men sew about 20,000 pairs of jeans and some 30,000 T-shirts for the prison population. Workers also make garments under the Prison Blues label sold to the public and operate a screen printing shop.

Taxpayers don't subsidize the factory and it must operate in the black, according to Oregon Corrections Enterprises General Manager Ken West. West said quality is as good, or better, than the private sector, though the prison doesn't compete directly.

Joanne Coursey, who coordinates the embroidery shop, said the team has talent and drive.

"They want it perfect," she said.

Inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary carpentry shop built walnut and oak bases to accompany the EOCI flags. Courtney presented them to the House and Senate, saying he hoped the two-sided flags would remind Legislators to consider all sides of issues and that it takes both parties and both chambers to complete a successful session.


Information from: East Oregonian

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.