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What Do You Think About Tattoos? Should Tattooing in Prison be Legal?


I ask that question because it is legal in the outside world and as a prison doctor I saw the medical consequences of making it illegal in prisons. The improvised equipment they used was not sterile which put them at risk for infections like hepatitis B , C and HIV. The ink was made from things like melted Styrofoam or soot from burnt petroleum jelly plus a variety of other agents that could cause scarring or allergic reactions.

Making tattooing illegal also appeals to risk takers and the tattoo artists who profit from it. Inmates asked me why the system didn’t just create a legal, medically safe tattoo parlor in each prison where tattoo artists could be certified and gainfully employed. They pointed out that it would be medically safer and it could be another prison industry where the prison could net some money from its operation. I could see their point, but I wondered what other problems would arise and whether the number of tattoos would actually go up or down.


When I started as a prison doctor in 1987 I had a simplistic view of tattoos. My professor told me that seeing one tattoo on a patient meant they had made a mistake. Two meant they were in the military. Three meant they were a criminal. What a difference 30 years makes. In 2017 tattoos are commonplace and are perceived as an artistic expression, especially among the millennials. Recent articles about tattooing the eyeball and changing the color of the sclera are concerning though and have resulted in blindness in some cases. Medical articles are also pointing out that nanoparticles from the ink are ending up in lymph nodes and the long term medical consequences are unknown.


In prison I had ample time to examine inmates and ask why they chose particular tattoos and what they meant. I found some highly entertaining like the tattoo of an arrow under the umbilicus pointing toward the penis with the inscription above it, ‘The other white meat.’ Or the inmate with a list of his past girlfriends on his chest with a line thru each reading ‘Void.’ I knew many of the tattoos signified gang affiliations, years in prison, murders etc. For the ones with extensive facial tattoos with writings like, ‘Fuck Cops ’ written across their foreheads I can only say that they never envisioned a different future than prison.


The majority of inmates I dealt with regretted the tattoos they placed when they were young, afraid, lonely, angry ,bored or wanted recognition for something. For others it was their identity and they could not imagine a future where they would think and act differently.


What do you think about tattoos? Should tattooing be legal or illegal in a prison?

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