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Laser erasing prison tattoos could help Ohio man shed past

Leaders of Hamilton County’s Re-entry Office are optimistic that the program, which relies on volunteer doctors instead of tax dollars, will tear down one of the biggest barriers confronting former inmates

Associated Press

CINCINNATI — Leroy Turner traces his finger over the swirling black ink etched into his skin, as if reading lines from a book.

The tattoos are everywhere, from his face to his fingertips, and the story they tell is his own. “Natural Born Hustler” covers his right hand. “In cash we trust” curls below his ear. Loops and symbols and odes to street life fill the spaces in between.

All of them have meaning to Turner, who has spent a good share of his 31 years selling drugs and causing trouble in Cincinnati.

He says that life is over now. His skin says otherwise.

So now Turner is here, in the office of a cosmetic surgeon, volunteering for a new project that’s helping former inmates remove tattoos they can’t conceal.

The hope is to erase the visible evidence of a past they want to escape but instead share with everyone they meet.

No one knows how this will work out, since Turner is the first to do it. But the leaders of Hamilton County’s Re-entry Office are optimistic that the program, which relies on volunteer doctors instead of tax dollars, will tear down one of the biggest barriers confronting men and women like Turner.

It’s hard enough, they say, to become a productive member of society with a rap sheet and a probation officer. It’s harder still when you meet a potential landlord or employer with a face covered in crude tattoos you got in prison.

“You get people with felony backgrounds and then you add this on top of it,” says DeAnna Hoskins, director of the re-entry office. “People make their judgment based on what they see.”

Even as tattoos have become more accepted and more common, the stigma associated with tattoos on the face and neck, especially those depicting criminal and gang activity, remains strong.

A recent Career Builder survey found a visible tattoo would prevent 31 percent of employers from hiring someone. And a West Virginia University study last year found that ex-cons with visible tattoos returned to prison much more quickly than those without them.

Hoskins, whose office helps former prisoners find work and housing, said that’s because visible tattoos keep former inmates from getting good jobs and integrating into society.

Dozens of people in the re-entry program have visible tattoos, she said, and employers have made it clear they don’t like the ink.

Turner knows that as well as anyone. He’s done some temporary work since his last stint in prison in 2012, but a full-time job has eluded him.

His background is a problem, but he thinks maybe, in time, he could get past that. His painted skin is another matter. How do you convince a potential employer you’ve changed when your face is still that of a prisoner?

“They look at you and they turn their nose up at you,” Turner says. “People see that and think you’re a gangster, a hoodlum.”

When he applied for a job at a fast-food burger place last year, the interviewer took one look at him and cut to the chase: “How are you going to cover your tattoos?”

Turner didn’t have an answer then. If all goes well, he soon will.

Turner takes the bus every six weeks from his home to the office of Dr. Jon Mendelsohn, the cosmetic surgeon who is donating his services to the project. His visit in early March is the third in a series of laser treatments that could require 10 or more sessions to finish the job.

The treatments don’t take long, maybe a half-hour. The powerful, handheld laser crackles as it breaks up the ink beneath the skin and leaves behind a layer of tiny white blisters.

“It hurts worse than getting them,” Turner says. “Every treatment I get, it reminds me of the mistakes I made.”

Progress is slow — the difference from treatment to treatment is barely noticeable — but Turner says it’s worthwhile if he can rid himself of images that he’s grown tired of explaining.

The giant penny on his neck? “Because I was all about the money.” Three tear drops falling from his right eye? “One for every time I was in prison.”

It’s not a conversation he wants to have in a job interview, or anytime.

Most of the tattoos are the work of inmate artists who turn their prison cells into makeshift studios. First, Turner says, they sharpened the tip of a guitar string to a needle point and dipped it into a heated blend of pen ink, baby oil and alcohol. Then they attached the string to a motor from a CD player so it vibrated like a tattoo gun.

The process could take hours or days, depending on the complexity of the design and the frequency of interruptions by prison guards.

Because of the shoddy equipment and amateur artwork, prison tattoos are unmistakable to those who’ve seen a lot of them. The ink is typically black or a dark blue-green, and the images aren’t as sharp as professional work, sometimes bleeding into one another.

People see them and they know. This guy has been to prison.

So why get them in the first place? “I felt like nothing matters,” Turner says. “I felt like how I was living then was how I’d live the rest of my life.”

Behind bars, he says, the tattoos made sense. They touted his street credentials, his toughness. The outside world, and what it thought of him, didn’t matter.

About halfway through his third stint in prison, a three-year sentence that ended in 2012, Turner started taking carpentry classes and a few college-level psychology courses. He says that’s when he started to think maybe there was another way.

Yet even when he considered the possibility of going straight, he still saw his old self in the mirror. And he knew everyone else did, too.

When he got out and told a friend he was done with the street life, she was skeptical.

“You can’t tell from your face,” she said. “You look like a thug.”

Changing life means changing appearance

A few months ago, Hoskins asked a group of former inmates if anyone would be interested in tattoo removal. New laser technology had improved the success rate and Mendelsohn had agreed to do the work for free.

Turner immediately raised his hand.

Others were wary. Hoskins says at least a dozen more would like to get rid of their tattoos, but they’re waiting to see how well it works on Turner before signing up.

Hoskins is eager to get more people involved. She says an employer recently asked about using up to 70 people from the re-entry program on a temporary job, but visible tattoos were an issue. She could find only 20 without them.

“I can work with an employer on invisible barriers,” she says, such as a prison record or a poor work history. “But if they go in there with those tattoos, and the person is already leery?”

Turner knows the answer to that question, and he says he’s fine being the test subject. To change his life, he says, he must change his appearance. He has a baby girl now, and a stepson, so the urgency is greater than ever.

As he sits in Mendelsohn’s office, waiting for his laser treatment, Turner scrolls through photos of friends on his phone. One of them was shot to death recently on a street near Turner’s old home.

“Here he is,” Turner says, holding up the photo of his friend, a young man in a T-shirt, tattoos across his neck. “They still don’t know who did it.”

He slips the phone into his pocket when Mendelsohn comes into the room. The doctor gives the tattoos a quick check and hands Turner a pair of shaded glasses to protect his eyes.

“Are you ready?”

Turner nods his head, and the laser begins to crackle.

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