Why do so many inmates have tattoos?

A recently posted question on Quora asked, 'why do so many people in prison have tattoos?' We selected a few responses from inmates allowed to post online through the San Quentin 'Last Mile' program. Add your own comments below.

Harry Hemphill, San Quentin Inmate: Let’s see, I have several tattoos so I may be able to answer this question from an informed perspective. 

When men are placed in the penal system they are removed from society—displaced from friends and family. One of the first steps of the process is literally being stripped naked, and asked to perform various umm… maneuvers to ensure contraband is not hidden. 

AP Photo/Alabama Dept. of Corrections

Prisoners are then placed in a holding cage with other men, often, men are forced to sleep on the floor as they await permanent cell accommodation. 

Prior to being placed in a permanent housing unit, an inmate is given a photo ID along with a prison number. For all intents and purposes, that man is no longer identified by his name, but becomes inmate F16064. 

After being stripped of individualism and identity, after being degraded and having their self-esteem and sense of worthiness trampled upon. I believe tattoos are a form of expression, a cry from deep within that allows one to communicate a personal message with others. 

I believe that in many ways tattoos are a desperate attempt to cling to one’s self dignity and identity. 

The body becomes a personal canvas to say, “Damnit, I’m still in here and I’m distinct from others.” It becomes an outlet to signify uniqueness in an attempt to distinguish oneself from the vast sea of thrown away bodies.

Joseph Demerson, San Quentin Inmate: Most prisoners have this misconception that tattoos make a man look hard, tuff or cool. I don't think this misconception is limited to prisoners. Some prisoners act as if it is some type of right of passage. One fact is very clear getting tattoos in prison is much cheaper and believe it or not some of the best tattoo artist are in prison. Also tattoos that cost five hundred dollars in society will only cost around one hundred fifty dollars sometimes less in prison. The tattoos are normally paid off with canteen which makes the business pretty lucrative for the tattoo artist.

Prisoners glorify the tattoos by showing them off to their friends. This leads to a competition, where prisoners try to out do each other by getting extravagant tattoos. There is a constant search for the next best tattoo pattern.

Another reason tattoos exist is gangs wear them. The tattoos let rival gangs know what area they are from and how much of a threat they are to others. Simple mathematics, if you mess with a person with a gang tattoo, their group will retaliate. The tattoos are not just limited to gangs because certain racist groups wear them too. They have them to let prisoners know, they only associate with their race. All ethnic groups have people with tattoos but here are the main ones, African American prisoners have them, some Mexicans and European Americans and Asians have these tattoos.

Tattoos are not just worn by prisoners. Tattoos have become some type of fad for officers and medical staff. People think having a tattoo is cool. Fortunately I only have one small tattoo on my arm and it is a name. I will never get another tattoo ever. I think being tattoo free is cool. 

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