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Canada to open prison tattoo parlors

Move spurred by drive to prevent spread of diseases

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

(Court TV) -- When Todd Matchett went to prison for second-degree murder in 1986, a fellow inmate threaded a guitar string through a Bic pen, attached it to a cassette Walkman motor, and tattooed the grim reaper on Matchett's left shoulder.

Six months away from his release, Matchett may finally see the day when fellow inmates at the Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick, Canada, can get tattoos through legitimate means while serving time.

From Conception Bay to Medicine Hat, Canadian inmates may be able to safely tattoo themselves as soon as 2005 if a test of onsite prison tattoo parlors this summer proves successful.

Correctional Services Canada announced the pilot program's launch in March as part of its campaign to combat the wide prevalence of blood-borne diseases in Canadian prisons.

A recent survey among inmates in Canadian prisons indicates at least 26 percent of inmates have hepatitis C, 30 times the prevalence of the disease in the general population.

"We think when people go to prison, we never have to think about them again," said Dr. Francoise Bouchard, the director general of Health Services for Correctional Services Canada. "But 95 percent of our inmates will eventually be released back in the community, so prisons have a public health responsibility."

Bouchard says the program is Canada's latest "harm-reduction initiative," following the successful implementation of methadone treatment clinics in each of the country's 53 prisons last year.

"At least 45 percent of inmates admit to tattooing themselves in jail, most of it done with very unsafe equipment such as knives and pens that are shared with others," Bouchard said.

Matchett, who gave a phone interview from prison, says he's seen his share of infected inmates, although he has managed to steer clear of contracting any diseases.

"Seeing how it's illegal right now to give or receive tattoos, you've got a lot of people going to the same guys who are using the same equipment on everyone," he said. "You run a gamut of cross-contamination."

Matchett sees several other perks of the program besides safe tattooing, including price stabilization.

"A four by six inch tattoo on your shoulder goes for about 10 bales of tobacco," about 20 packs of cigarettes, Matchett said. "This way wouldn't cost us much more than the price of the needle."

Prison tattoo parlors also would enable inmates to cover up unsightly tattoos for when they leave.

"A lot of fellas get some pretty hard-looking tattoos, like swastikas or hate writing," Matchett said. "That may make them tough inside here, but they're not looked upon so positively once you get outside."

Inmates will be trained to staff and operate the tattoo parlors once six of them open in facilities throughout Canada.

"They're not going to learn to do professional designs, surely," Bouchard said. "But they will learn the basics of hygiene."

The training and job experience may also benefit convicts after they complete their sentences.

"It'll give the inmates some workable release skills for when they get back on the streets," Matchett said.

Michael Jacobson, a professor of criminology at John Jay Law School in New York City and a former commissioner for the New York City Corrections Commission, says Canada has a strong reputation when it comes to preparing inmates for release back into the society.

"Canadian corrections are generally much more into rehabilitation in prisons and re-entry," Jacobson said. "They're not as punishment-oriented as we are. There is an emphasis on dealing with the underlying issues."

Will the United States ever open tattoo parlors in its correctional facilities?

"I think the attitude in the U.S. is changing. A lot of policy makers are opening up to that sort of thinking," Jacobson said. "But there's not a lot of money for programs like that, and the Canadian system is much smaller than ours."

Because tattoo artistry in Canada is apprenticeship-based and not regulated, Canadian tattoo artist Justin Winstanley believes the basic mechanisms of tattooing are easy to learn.

"Because it's a trade more so than an art form, the principles are fairly straightforward," Winstanley said. "But it requires a special sort of person to master the finer points. But art is subjective ? the one constant should always be safety."

He said he supports the pilot project in principle, even if it reinforces negative stereotypes regarding tattooing.

"Sure, on the one hand, it associates tattooing with prison once again, but any positive move toward making the process safer legitimizes it for the rest of us," said Winstanley, who owns of the Belmont Tattoo Lounge in Thorold, Ontario.

Winstanley said careless oversights account for most risks arising from tattooing, when improper hygiene procedures result in superficial skin infections to staph, up to any of the hepatitis infections or syphilis.

He cites one case in which someone popped the staples out of a Bible to use as a makeshift needle and used the soot from burned pages as ink.

"At worst, a tattoo job can leave you a permanent reminder of the experience other than the tattoo," Winstanley said. "Those situations are on par with back-alley surgery."

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