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6 Things an Analysis of Prison Tattoos Found

'Economist' study of clink ink offers fascinating revelations
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 5, 2017 4:14 PM CST

(Newser) – Located a half-mile from the Los Angeles County prison known as the Twin Towers lies Homeboy Industries, one of the country's largest gang-rehab groups. One of the duties Homeboy has assumed to help ex-gang members and inmates re-enter society is a seemingly quirky but often necessary one: erasing their clients' tattoos, per the Economist. It's an innovative program that's physically painful—one ex-con likens the tattoo removal to "being hit by a rubber band that’s on fire"—but mentally freeing. The reasons why current and former inmates trash their tats are varied. It could be that someone's ink is riling up a family member or romantic partner, causing angst because of "shoddy craftsmanship," or leading to troubles in job searches—the magazine notes one inmate who couldn't get a gig, possibly because he had "F--- the World" tattooed across his forehead (just sayin').

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Using available data (including an accessible Florida Department of Corrections database that offers info on 100,000 inmates or so), the magazine took a closer look at what tattoos inmates get and why. Some findings:

  • About 75% of Florida's prisoners have tattoos, with the median inmate claiming a total of three. Perhaps surprisingly, the tats aren't overwhelmingly crime-themed. There are funny tattoos, heart tattoos, even ones indicating a hanged head of sorts: At least 117 inmates have inked variations of "Mother tried."
  • Age matters: About 85% of those under the age of 35 have ink, while only 43% of prisoners 55 and over can say the same. Race and gender of the prisoner also play a role, with whites more likely to sport white supremacist-tied tats, blacks more often boasting gang-linked ink, and Hispanics leaning toward Christian symbols. Male inmates tended toward prison cell tats, while female prisoners opted more often for hearts, butterflies, and inspirational mantras.
  • Criminal records come into play, with sex offenders tending to have the fewest tattoos, while those behind bars for weapons- or property-related crimes have the most.
  • While inmates with tats on their faces or heads are 30% less likely to be killers, prisoners with a five-pointed crown or the phrase "ALKN" (Almighty Latin King Nation) are 89% more likely to be killers.
  • Low-level offenders, on the other hand, sport ink with more existential or philosophical meaning, including clocks without hands to speak to time spent in jail, as well as comedy/tragedy masks.
  • Citing previous studies and its own data, the Economist also found that having one or more tattoos didn't bode well for staying out of prison, though it doesn't claim causality: Of reincarcerated inmates, 75% boasted tattoos.
The rest of this fascinating look at ex-inmates and their ink is here. (Read more tattoos stories.)

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