Prison tattoos: Body art bad for the body

Reining in underground tattooing can reduce the spread of Hepatitis and HIV

By Lorry Schoenly

Is tattooing a part of the inmate culture in your prison or jail? If so, your population and staff may be at risk for more than just bad artwork. Homemade prison tattooing can have serious health risks due to bloodborne pathogen (BBP) transmission. Risks come from infected contraband tattooing ‘guns’ and needles — as well as unclean ink sources — that contribute to blood transfer during the inking process.

HIV transmission is usually the first (and worst) BBP that comes to mind when thinking about prison tattooing. However, inmates are far more likely to contract Hepatitis C during tattooing, as more inmates have this condition. Although infection rates vary across prison systems, between 30 and 40 percent of the United States inmate population is thought to be carrying the Hepatitis C virus. Only about two percent of the general population carries HIV. Hepatitis C is significantly more contagious than HIV and, if left untreated, it can result in significant liver damage and death. And unlike Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C currently has no available vaccine.

Reining in underground tattooing can reduce the spread of Hepatitis (in all its forms) and HIV among the inmate population at your facility. When you reduce makeshift tattooing in your prison population, chances for viral transmission to custody staff and the general public also decrease.
Here are several suggestions for reducing this practice:

• Include education about the dangers of prison tattooing in the inmate orientation process of your facility
• Have healthcare staff regularly provide additional education during sick call or health rounds, should fresh tattooing be suspected
• Have a zero-tolerance policy on homemade tattooing — create structured ways to deal with offenses and consider how initiation of a tattoo-reduction program will impact the prison subculture, including gang activity
• Carefully handle tattooing equipment and needles when found during a shakedown — consider all items, even if appearing clean, to be contaminated

Some prisons systems have implemented pilot programs to reduce underground tattooing in their facility through regulated in-facility tattoo parlors, a controversial practice akin to in-prison condom distribution. These programs ensure that proper hygiene is maintained and sterilized equipment is used in the tattooing process, but at what cost? Are the benefits of sanctioned tattooing (decreases in BBP transmission and the trade in contraband tattoo equipment) outweighed by the costs (perpetuation of tattoo and gang culture)?

Tell us your thoughts in the comments section.

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