I’m not sure why someone would want to know how to make a jail tattoo….except maybe some of our inmate patients, I guess. However, correctional nurses need to know that these procedures go on in jail and prison cells all over the country. The process is crude and the instruments are often unclean. That means plenty of potential for infection and the passing of blood born pathogens like Hepatitis C. Read my blog post on what nurses need to know about prison tattoos and watch this short video for more particulars (sorry about the short advertisement at the beginning).
Tattoos have been a part of prison culture for some time. Prison tattoos are most often obtained to identify allegiance to a particular gang. Tattoos (also called Tats or Ink) can identify skills, specialties, or convictions. Read about ways tats communicate information. Tattooing is usually forbidden in the prison system, making it a daring task, as well as making it a potentially dangerous one.
Dangers of Prison Tattooing
The major danger of prison tattooing (aside from bad art work!) is blood-born pathogen (BBP) transmission. Typical methods for tattooing include use of common ball-point pen ink and crude make-shift needles. Sterilization is not performed between uses. Although most inmates fear HIV transmission, the most likely BBP is Hepatitis B. The Hepatitis B virus is extremely contagious. Hepatitis C and resulting liver damage can also be transmitted through the prison tattooing process.
A controversial program in Canadian prisons was piloted to decrease the transmission of BBP by employing inmates to provide tattoos within the facility using good technique and sterilized equipment.
Other complications from prison tattooing are allergic reactions to the pigment, aggravation of existing skin diseases, or keloid scarring. You may see these conditions during a sick call visit.
Consider adding disease transmission information about prison tattooing during the intake process. Let incoming inmates know of the dangers of submitting to the tattooing process behind bars. Other education opportunities may come during sick call or cell-side rounds. Add tattoo information to regular infection control education and information materials.
Nursing Care Dilemma
An ethical dilemma can ensue if you are asked to assess a tattoo for age. Correctional nurses have been asked to determine if a tattoo is recent (and therefore ‘illegal’). This situation places the nurse in a position to be part of a punitive action. Since correctional nurses must maintain a care-giving status with inmates alternative methods are needed for assessing and staging tattoos within the facility.
How are prison tattoos handled in your workplace? Share your story in the comment section for this post.