Go to prison, get a free tattoo.
The Canadian government has recently announced plans to open sanctioned tattoo studios in our prisons. The studios would be staffed by prisoners, but they would have proper contamination control including hard disinfectable surfaces, autoclaves, and gloves — none of which are available in “normal” prison tattooing, and all of which are considered essential for safe tattooing. There will be some restrictions on the tattoos permitted (no gang tattoos for example), and prisoners would have to “pay” for the cost of their tattoos out of their own pocket — although that will be only a few dollars (just the price of the needles and ink). A bit over $100,000 has been initially committed to the plan, which will open five prison-based tattoo studios by the end of the year.
Conservative Canadian politicians have denounced this plan, and US media has used it as yet another reason to make fun of the Dudley Do-Right softies north of the border. The conservative stance on the issue is that since tattooing is wrong (it is currently forbidden in prisons), it shouldn’t be legalized any more than cocaine should be legalized. Why should prisoners be given well stocked tattoo studios and essentially free tattoos, when people who haven’t been incarcerated have to pay $100 an hour or more for the same service? Inmates already receive free cable TV (including soft-core porn), are allowed to order delivery pizza, and, as FOX News put it last year when commenting on the luxurious Canadian prison system, “what’s next — flavored condoms?”
But all of that misses the point.
Tattooing inside prisons isn’t about getting a cute little pink star or a fancy Polynesian sleeve that you’ve spent the last year fine-tuning with your artist. Tattooing inside prisons is both an important part of the social structure, and is essential for keeping the individual alive, sane, and in control of their identity to at least a small extent. To state it in its simplest terms, the cohesion tattooing provides helps keep people alive, and half of all prisoners in Canada are tattooed while behind bars. Removing tattooing from prisons simply isn’t going to happen. A hundred years of efforts have had no effect, and a hundred years more won’t change it either. People will continue to leave prison with more tattoos than when they entered. It’s how the system works, and it’s how people survive the system.
Above, two tattoos obtained surreptitiously in prison… Did the wearers get more
than they bargained for when they had them applied? (Photos: BME Archives)
Hepatitis C is a fatal disease with no cure. It is most easily passed by blood to blood contact. In Canadian prisons, over a quarter of all inmates have this disease — thirty times the national norm. Similar numbers exist in prisons all over the world (some US states have rates as high as 40%). Much of it is believed to be spread by unsanitary tattooing inside the prisons. Hepatitis is also being spread by unprotected sex of course, but Canadian prisons already provide condoms in an attempt to curb this method of transmission. The other major source of blood borne pathogen spread inside prisons is IV drug use (and yes, Corrections Canada is also considering a needle-exchange program). The goal is to take a tough no-win situation, and find the solution that does the least harm.
But to put it clearly — 26% of people that enter Canadian prisons leave with a fatal disease with no cure. The factors contributing to these infections are arguably out of the control of the prisoner. They are an unavoidable byproduct of the structure of the prison systems. What this statistic means is that if a dozen people are sent to prison for auto theft, while they’ll all leave prison when their sentence ends, statistically three of them will die early from a disease they caught in that prison… thereby escalating their sentence to include the death penalty (preceded by an extended period of medical “torture”).
The prison system has an obligation to both the public and the prisoners they’re attempting to reform to hand down the sentence demanded by the courts. Not less, and certainly not more. It is utterly unacceptable to hand out five year sentences, but then subtext that with “PS. sorry, but we’ll also have to accidentally kill a quarter of you because we can’t keep prisons safe enough.”
Certainly there are dangers in a prison. Inmates will fight. Inmates will even kill each other at times. There is a dangerous chaos in prisons that’s hard to eliminate, but there are other dangers that are easier to eliminate. Tattoo safety is one of the easiest and most obvious ways to reduce needless danger to prisoners. Those who try and block these initiatives knowing the facts are simply trying to slip in severe penalties for minor crimes without the approval of the judicial system, a corrupt and inhumane act that needs to be denounced. We’ve just seen in the current prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq how easy it is for otherwise decent people from civilized nations to allow horrendous wrongs to be done to prisoners. We need to ask ourselves if providing an environment of incarceration so dangerous that a quarter of criminals — no matter what their crime was — are randomly assigned the death penalty, goes farther than we are comfortable as decent civilized people ourselves.
Now, maybe you’re saying “prison is supposed to suck”. I’m not interested in debating here whether prison is there for punishment or for reform — the real question is are we doing unjust and unnecessary damage to society both inside and outside of prisons due to our managerial decisions regarding how prisons are run? When a quarter of prisoners leave prison with an incurable fatal disease, you’re going to have a lot of collateral damage — more people will be infected, and the cost of treating them when the symptoms start to kick in cost taxpayers needless money. One should also consider that telling a recently released prisoner that they’re going to die an unpleasant death because of going to prison — and that nothing will ever change that — is going to greatly increase their chances of repeating and escalating their criminal behavior.
Hopelessness will do that to people.
Even if a prisoner leaves prison without catching Hep C from their tattoos, they’ll still be left with obvious jailhouse tatties, stigmatizing them and making them an outcast from normal society. This, again, increases their chances of repeating their crimes and hurting innocent people. It’s true that all tattooed people have a little more difficulty finding work because of the bigotry of the plainskins, but a well-executed tasteful tattoo is far less stigmatizing than something that was obviously hand-poked in dim light behind bars using cigarette ashes and green toothpaste. Being covered in tattoos effectively branding the wearer as an incompetent loser also shatters their own self-esteem, again leading to hopelessness and continued problems for them and the community around them.
As I see it, we have two options: we either accept that a high percentage of prisoners will be killed due to the prison experience, or we allow safe tattoo studios to be set up inside prisons (and take similar precautions in other arenas as well). If we choose the first option, juries must start considering that in their sentencing — after all, “three years incarceration” and “three years incarceration plus a fatal disease” are an order of magnitude apart, given that the latter kills the poor bastard who’s just been found guilty. On the other hand, if we choose the option of allowing safe studios in prisons, we’ll not be able to so easily slip people a surprise death penalty… and we’ll have to invest far less money than we’d spend cleaning up the damage if we didn’t.
Some people have implied that proper tattoo studios are a part of a “slippery slope” that makes prisons cushier and cushier — soon people will want to go to prison. To that I call bullshit! This isn’t a debate about a black and white television versus a big-screen color TV with all the sports channels. This is about taking an activity that goes on in prisons and isn’t going to stop, and making it as safe as possible in order to serve the public need. It makes sense even if you ignore all benefits to the prisoner. This is good for everyone.
By adding safe tattoo studios to prisons, Canada is ensuring that the prison system will be less costly to the taxpayer, and that the societal damage done by the necessarily harsh conditions inside our penitentiaries is minimized and contained. It’s wonderful to see tattooing being used to heal criminals, rather than harm them and keep them down and breaking the law. I hope other countries follow Canada’s initiative in this pioneering effort.