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Report Lauds Canada's Prison Tattoo Program, but Government Won't Bring it Back

Like the faint and ghostly outline of a panther’s claw inked upon an old man’s bicep decades ago, Canada’s prison-sanctioned tattoo parlor experiment has faded away.

In spite of a glowing evaluation of the Safer Tattooing Practices Initiative pilot, just released publicly in October, Canada’s Conservative government has no intention of bringing it back, no matter how effective an in-house tattoo parlor was in halting the spread of HIV and Hep C within prison.

A 70-page report from the Correctional Service of Canada made 11 key findings, including the program led to greater awareness of blood-borne diseases among prisoners and staff. It also gave prisoners jobs and effected safer disposal of used needles.

“Initial results of the initiative indicate potential to reduce harm, reduce exposure to health risk, and enhance the health and safety of staff members, (prisoners) and the general public,” the CSC reported. There was also a reduction in seized tattoo contraband and “illicit” tattooing at medium-security prisons, all for an annual cost of less than $1 million.

The pilot was launched in August 2005 at six federal prisons across Canada. Thirteen months later, 20 tattoo artists had performed 1,043 sessions.

But Canada’s former public safety minister, Stockwell Day, canceled the program in 2006, a few months after Conservatives were sworn into office. Some taxpayers’ and victims’ rights groups were happy to see the program discontinued, even though some estimates indicate HIV infection is 10 times higher, and Hep C infection 20 times higher, in prisons than in the general population outside them.

The union that represents Canadian federal prison guards also objected to the program, even while prison staff admitted their risk of being exposed to Hep C and HIV was higher before the program began.

The CSC cited a few problems implementing the pilot, including having too few highly-skilled tattooists and too sporadic hours of operation at some prisons. But the program was “consistent with the goals and objectives of the federal initiative to address HIV/AIDS in Canada,” the report concluded.

A spokesman for Peter Van Loan, the current public safety minister, said the Canadian federal government has no plan to revive the program.


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