Prisons grapple with tattoo problem

Tattoo artists tagged with rule violations 10,000 times in three years.

Ohio prison inmates are tattooing their bodies using devices pieced together from everyday materials, even though getting inked in unsterilized environments such as prison cells can lead to the spread of bacteria and infectious diseases, including Hepatitis C and MRSA.

Data obtained by the Dayton Daily News show prison officials during a three-year period filed nearly 10,000 code of conduct violations against Ohio inmates for possessing items that are used to create body art. Thousands of other internal charges were filed against inmates for getting tattoos.

Treating prisoners for Hepatitis C, MRSA and other infections can be pricey, and prisoners who develop health problems from unsterilized equipment can face long-term consequences, including liver disease and early death.

Hepatitis C is many times more prevalent among inmates than the general population. Although prison officials say they are vigilant in efforts to curb tattooing, ridding the prisons of the activity has proved difficult.

“They are an ongoing health and safety concern that we don’t take for granted or turn a blind eye to,” said Ed Voorhies, managing director of operations with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “We do searches of our prisons all the time.”

One of those searches resulted in internal charges against Davon Hall, 22, of Dayton.

Hall is serving a five-year prison sentence at the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County for robbing a woman by gunpoint in 2010.

In February of 2012, his attorney, Byron Shaw, asked for his client’s early release, saying he was a model inmate who has committed few or no infractions since entering the prison system in June 2011.

The tattoo violation came nearly a year later, in January 2013. Prison officials say another inmate at Lebanon, Benjamin Carlucci, inked Hall’s left arm using a motorized, homemade tattoo gun.

Carlucci, who was convicted of aggravated robbery and other crimes, had his equipment was confiscated, but that didn’t stop him from continuing his business. Three months later he was charged again after he was caught giving a different inmate a tattoo on his arm, according to an ODRC report. Again, officers confiscated a tattoo gun and a bottle of ink.

Less than three weeks later, prison officers noticed the window of a cell door covered. When they entered the cell, they found Carlucci tattooing yet another inmate, a report said. Officers confiscated a tattoo gun and needle, a power cord and a bottle of blank ink.

Later that month, officers discovered Carlucci tattooing the same inmate and confiscated his ink and equipment.

Inmates can create battery-powered tattoo guns using simple items, such as a short piece of wire, parts of portable CD or tape players, the motor of an electrical fan, a needle and the sleeve on a pen. They get ink from pens or by making it by burning certain materials and using the soot.

“They mushfake them,” Voorhies said. “That’s a prison term for manufacturing or creating something out of pieces and parts of things you would never think of.”

Criminal charges rare

Ohio inmates can be criminally charged for tattooing activities if they are infected with HIV or Hepatitis B or C, officials said, though such charges are rare. Voorhies said Ohio’s system had no violations of that type in at least three years, possibly longer.

Internal violations are commonplace, however.

Between 2011 and 2013, Ohio prison officials filed 9,817 charges against inmates for violating inmate rules of conduct by possessing devices or materials used for tattooing, according to ODRC data. During the same period, officials also filed 7,950 charges against inmates for self mutilation, most of which stem from tattooing.

Inmates caught breaking tattooing rules face punishments ranging from extra work duties, restricted access to the commissary or getting placed in segregation.

Prison tattooists often get paid for their work through deposits to their commissary accounts. Tattooing allows inmates to make money, barter for other contraband, display gang affiliations and decorate their bodies with words and designs that range in quality, complexity and symbolism, officials said.

Some inmates get teardrops tattooed at the corners of their eyes, which can signify the loss of a friend or family member or time spent behind bars.

Other inmates get tattoos of images of prison bars, barbed wire, the view through a keyhole, a ring of warden’s keys or a guard tower, said Mike Martin, president of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists.

“The work is outstanding at times to very basic to just plain not-so-good,” said Martin, who lives in California. “We see them every day in my shop and some are great and some are pretty bad.”

Health risks

The greatest risk of prison tattooing is that inmates will contract Hepatitis C through using non-sterile equipment or they may develop a staph infection from dirty living conditions or the lack of knowledge or proper products to care for a fresh tattoo, said Martin.

There is little evidence that Hepatitis C is spread by getting tattoos in licensed, commercial facilities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But dingy prison cells are a far cry from a professional tattoo parlor.

Inmates can come into contact with the Hepatitis C virus from a tattooist’s ungloved hands or a needle stick or contact with a surface that has been contaminated, Martin said. Inmates often reuse the same tattooing needle numerous times.

About 5,305 Ohio prison inmates are known to have Hepatitis C, including 237 at the Lebanon prison, according to state data. There are about 50,300 inmates in the state prison system.

Nationwide, between 16 to 41 percent of prison inmates have ever been infected with the Hepatitis C virus, and 12 to 35 percent are chronically infected, which compares to 1 to 1.5 percent of the non-institutionalized population, according to the CDC.

Dr. Sarah Larney, a research fellow at the at Brown University and the University of New South Wales, said up to half of those infected with the Hepatitis C virus are unaware they have it.

A dozen states routinely test incoming prisoners for Hepatitis C, Larney said. Ohio screens all new inmates for risk factors associated with exposure to Hepatitis C, and they are tested if they meet certain criteria.

In 2013, ODRC treated about 34 inmates for Hepatitis C, which cost $929,171, officials said.

Inmates caught getting tattoos are tested for Hepatitis C at their own expense, prison officials say. Prison tattoos were also one of the factors cited for a MRSA outbreak at the Southeastern Correctional Institution in 2009. MRSA is a highly contageous staph bacteria that is often difficult to treat.

In the last three years, there have been about 3,043 cases of MRSA across the Ohio prison system.

Larney said prisons can help prevent the spread of Hepatitis C and other diseases by allowing prisoners to operate a tattoo parlor where needles can be properly sterilized.

But Voorhies likened that proposal to allowing inmates to use illicit substances.

Instead, he said, prison officials combat the problem by sanitizing prison facilities, educating inmates about the health risks associated with tattooing, and stopping the free flow of items commonly used in tattoo guns.

“We don’t sell CD players or cassette players to inmates anymore,” he said.

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