For all 100,000 prisoners in their system, Florida has published data including their age, race, sex, what crimes they’ve committed, and — most intriguingly — what tattoos they have. The most obvious thing this data shows is just how common tattoos are.
Kevin Waters, a criminologist at Northern Michigan University and former Drug Enforcement Administration agent, notes that understanding which tattoos are purely aesthetic and which are signals can be a lot of help to law enforcement, distinguishing truly hardened criminals from posers—gang members do not take kindly to outsiders adopting their imagery.
A study by Kaitlyn Harger, now of Florida Gulf Coast University, found that upon release, ex-cons with tattoos could be expected to last just 2.4 years outside prison before being re-incarcerated, compared with 5.8 years for those without. The effect was especially pronounced for those with tattoos on the hands and face.
In the mid 1990’s, Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles, set up a bakery to provide jobs to people trying to go straight. The bakery was the first business in what is now Homeboy Industries, a non-profit which has since grown to be America’s largest gang-rehabilitation center, offering employment and other services to hundreds of former gang members. Its free tattoo-removal service has become the organization’s biggest claim to fame.
Such programs are spreading all across America. Half a mile from Homeboy, at the Twin Towers correctional facility, a Los Angeles County jail, inmates on good behavior are eligible to have their tattoos removed free of charge while still incarcerated.
Tattoo removal can change how others see a person. When those others are judges, or prospective employers, that can be good; when they are gang-mates, it can carry risks. Perhaps most important, removing tattoos can also change how someone sees them self.
Predictive as they may be, it would be hard and probably foolish to argue that the tattoos cause recidivism. Similarly, tattoo-removal programs seem unlikely in and of themselves to make anyone an intrinsically better person. But they can reflect a genuine investment in change and they may also help reduce the amount of discrimination reformed ex-cons face.1
1 This blog contains excerpts from “Crime, ink an analysis of the art on Convicts’ bodies. The Economist. December 24th, 2016. Retrieved from: www.economist.com.