In Pilot, Canada Legitimizes ‘Seamy’ Art of Prison Tattooing


The Canadian federal prison in Bath, Ontario, has relaxed security by U.S. standards. It is a medium-security facility, and its inmates are allowed to keep the keys to their cells. Many have their own kitchens, and they move freely from the gym to the cabinet-making shop. Drug addicts can clean their needles with bleach, and condoms are readily available. Now, reports the New York Times, the institution has opened a tattoo parlor in an effort to make an inevitable part of prison safe and cleaner.

The tattoo artist is inmate Mark Hewitt, who for years had been clandestinely puncturing prisoner biceps with sewing needles, guitar strings and homemade ink sometimes made from burnt polystyrene. Illicit tattooing has contributed to an epidemic of hepatitis C and H.I.V. in prisons in Canada and around the world. Now Hewitt has been trained by the government to take his art form out of the dark and seamy corners of the jail and into a sterile-looking cinder-block room that looks almost like a dental clinic. The parlor is part of a pilot project by the Correctional Services of Canada that began in August and now includes five federal prisons across Canada. A sixth, in a woman’s prison, is scheduled to open this month. More than 120 inmates have already taken part, paying about $5 per two-hour session. Officials say they believe that the pilot project is the first of its kind in the world.


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