Flag Day's Hidden Irony: Incarcerated Labor Behind America's Symbol of Freedom

Every year on June 14th, the United States celebrates Flag Day, a commemoration of the adoption of the nation's beloved flag. It is a day to honor the symbol of American unity, freedom, and resilience. However, there is a looming irony hanging over flags across the nation. As much as the flag is a symbol, it is also a product. As Vice President Kamala Harris stated in 2017 at the 150th anniversary of First Congregational Church, a significant number of flags in the United States are crafted by prisoners across the country, from California to Maryland. This is to combat the fact that according to the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Census Data, in 2015 the dollar value of U.S. imports of American flags was $4.4 million. Of that amount, $4 million of imported flags came from China. In 2017, the U.S. imported 10 million American flags. Of those, all but 50,000 came from China.

The irony of this connection truly cannot be overstated. For so many, the American flag is a powerful symbol of freedom, democracy, and equality, but for others they see the flag through their lens of incarceration, representing the loss of liberty and a restriction of rights.

On one hand, the flag represents the ideals and principles that the United States states they uphold, including justice, fairness, and the pursuit of a more perfect union. On the other hand, the use of prison labor in flag production raises questions about the treatment and rights of incarcerated individuals, as well as the ethics surrounding their labor. Incarcerated individuals often work under exploitative conditions, with low wages or even no wages at all. How much justice, how much fairness, how much freedom do they have? To expound on this, there are an estimated 600,000 to 1 million individuals working full time jobs in prisons and jails in this country - helping to create a market worth over 1 billion dollars. However, these incarcerated workers do not share in the profits with the average wage of these workers ranging from $0.93 to $4.73 per hour and in many cases, these individuals are not considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Instead, these profits are taken in by large corporations who use their supply of cheap labor to prevent local competition in the form of small businesses. In conjunction with the involuntary nature of incarceration, we begin to see how little the symbol of freedom means to them. Incarcerated individuals typically have limited choice or bargaining power when it comes to work assignments. They may be compelled to work under threat of punishment or loss of privileges, which raises concerns about the voluntary nature of their labor.

The irony is exacerbated by the fact that the symbol of freedom is being produced, in part, by individuals who have lost their own freedom. It sparks discussions and debates about the criminal justice system, rehabilitation, and if there even is an appropriate use of prison labor. Some argue that flag-making programs provide inmates with valuable skills, a sense of purpose, and a chance for rehabilitation, but that is not always the reality. When they’re released, their criminal records often disqualify them from finding work in these exact industries. Data shows that work programs do not guarantee a job after their period of incarceration is finished with one study finding nearly half of all work program participants were unemployed a year after release.

As we reflect on Flag Day, it is crucial to consider the implications of relying on prison labor to produce the flags we hold dear. It prompts us to question the systems in place, urging us to examine the rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for prisoners, as well as the overall fairness and ethics of our criminal justice system.

Flag Day serves as a reminder that our nation's ideals of freedom and justice should extend to all individuals, including those within the prison system. It is an invitation to engage in meaningful conversations about prison reform, fair labor practices, and the importance of providing opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration.

While the irony persists, it also presents an opportunity for us to address these ethical concerns, advocate for change, and work towards a justice system that truly reflects the values embodied by the American flag. As we proudly display our flags on Flag Day and beyond, let us also strive to create a society that upholds the principles of equality, compassion, and genuine freedom for all.