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A Clean Slate: Prisoners Taking Advantage of Tattoo Removal Programs

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) is among the latest – and largest – agencies to join a growing national trend: providing prisoners with the opportunity to take advantage of a program that offers a real and tangible step towards rehabilitation and employability through free laser treatments to remove tattoos.

Prisoners in Los Angeles and elsewhere who have participated in such programs have praised them as a chance to literally wipe the slate clean and get a fresh start on life after incarceration.

The LASD joins other agencies that have purchased laser treatment equipment, or have had volunteer medical professionals help prisoners rid themselves of tattoos that are often a barrier to employment and socialization upon release. For example, South Dakota spent more than $60,000 on a laser treatment machine that can be transported to each of the state’s prisons. And for two decades, the Salt Lake City Area Gang Project has operated a gang tattoo removal program in conjunction with the University of Utah Medical Center.

“This is a good program that helps people,” said Detective Rich Stone of the Salt Lake City Metro Gang Unit. “They might have some memories of past behavior, but at least the tattoos won’t be there, and they can move on.”

In Los Angeles, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility is the largest jail in America, confining thousands of prisoners. Those eligible for tattoo removal have participated in the LASD’s Education-Based Incarceration program, which offers GED, vocational and college-level courses. The program started with 25 prisoners in February 2012 as a collaboration between the LASD’s Medical Services Bureau and Inmate Services Bureau. Since then, it has expanded to include over 275 male and 260 female prisoners who have had tattoos removed, according to an LASD press release.

While such treatments can cost hundreds to several thousand dollars to remove a single tattoo, the LASD program is funded by the jail’s Inmate Welfare Fund, using proceeds from commissary sales and other prisoner-generated revenue.

“This doesn’t cost the taxpayers one penny,” said LASD Sergeant Ray Harley. A further economic benefit results from the program because tattoo removal “greatly improves [prisoners’] ability to get jobs and also improves their self-esteem,” he added.

“Visible tattoos, especially those that are gang-related or profane, can negatively impact an inmate’s ability to find employment after their release,” agreed LASD Medical Services Bureau Captain Kevin Kuykendall. “An ex-inmate who can find a job is better able to reintegrate into the community, and less likely to end up back in jail. This program helps those inmates that have made the commitment to better themselves while in custody carry that commitment with them as they re-enter our communities.”

The process of removing tattoos involves short bursts of intense light from a laser aimed at the tattoo pigment under the top layers of a person’s skin. The light breaks down the ink, allowing it to be absorbed by the body and causing the tattoo to fade. Most tattoo removals require between three and eight sessions to be completely effective.

LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore said preliminary studies of prisoners who take part in the Education-Based Incarceration program indicate that they have a lower rate of re-offending than other prisoners.

LASD prisoner Jessica Henry, 32, a former tattoo artist and single mother, said the tattoos extending from her knuckles to shoulders “represent [her] past” and she just wanted to start over, saying, “I feel I’m stereotyped by the way I look.”

Diana Nguyen, 29, underwent the treatment process to remove her tattoos. “At least with that cuss word off my hand, I can try to go in and get a real job, change my life and not be the person who I used to be,” she said.

“I know there’s a lot of jobs that you are not allowed to have tattoos and I don’t want to be held back by these stupid mistakes I have made,” agreed Kristine Roush, 30, who worked as a stripper to earn money to support her widowed grandfather until she was 26. First exposed to drugs when she was 8 years old and addicted to methamphetamines by the age of 13, Roush had the phrase “f**k it” tattooed on her foot, with stars in place of the “u” and “c.” Jailed on drug charges, Roush underwent six treatments to remove two tattoos. 

“All my tattoos – well most of them – represent all of my bad times,” she said. With every treatment, Roush added, she was more and more excited to have that part of her life removed. “I love [it] because I am not just changing from the inside, I am changing from the outside too,” she remarked.

“I know where this has gotten me and it’s nowhere nice,” noted Nicasio Acuna, who has spent most of his life behind bars and took advantage of the tattoo removal program offered by the Kern County Probation Department in Bakersfield, California.

Nurse Christine Warner, who administers laser tattoo removal treatments for the LASD, said the program is the “most rewarding job [she’s] ever had.” The prisoners are very grateful for the service, she stated. “A lot of times they’re moved to tears. We’ve got big, burly guys coming in here but they start crying because they’re so grateful to have this done – they’re getting a fresh start.”

Despite the apparent lack of any downside for tattoo removal programs, their acceptance is not universal. In Utah County, Utah, Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Coyle has been trying to establish such a program but has reached a dead end. There are no public funds available, and he has not been able to find a doctor or dermatologist willing to help.

Getting tattoos removed is “almost like being reborn,” Coyle said. “You’re not wearing your past on you anymore.”



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