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Minnesota prisons to hire tattoo artist for new program

Illegal prison tattooing can spread hepatitis and HIV. By taking the process into the light, Minnesota corrections officials hope to stop the spread of disease and give prisoners new skills. The state wants a licensed artist with at least three years of experience and a “strong, well-rounded portfolio" to help start a legal prison body art program.

Tattoo You
A tattoo artist applies ink in this Oct. 12, 2006, file photo.
Duluth News Tribune
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s prison system is establishing a tattoo program in the hopes of giving inmates new skills and curbing the spread of bloodborne disease from illegal body art.

The state corrections department is searching for an experienced tattoo artist to oversee the establishment of one or more tattoo studios in Minnesota's prisons. Prisoners are known to create their own tattoo equipment using materials including small electric motors and ballpoint pens. Without proper sterilization, the tools can lead to the transmission of diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV, as tattooers may use contaminated needles on multiple people.

Officials hope to make tattooing safer by placing it in a controlled setting.

Corrections department spokesman Nick Kimball said hepatitis treatments can cost anywhere between $20,000 to $75,000, and the state prison system treats 80-100 inmates for the disease each year. As of January 2022, there were 7,511 people incarcerated in Minnesota prisons and past estimates placed the number of infected inmates at anywhere from 1,200 to 3,500.

“By reducing the potential for transmission of bloodborne diseases, we are creating a safer environment for everyone, including our staff, and also being more prudent with taxpayer dollars,” Kimball said in a recent tweet promoting the job listing.

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Anywhere between 12% and 35% of the U.S. prison population has hepatitis C, according to the Hepatitis Education Project, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization that tracks the disease in correctional settings. The viral disease attacks the liver and can eventually be fatal. It is typically spread through intravenous drug use or unsterilized medical equipment.

In establishing a formal prison tattoo program, the state hopes to reduce recidivism by creating job opportunities for people when they leave prison, Kimball said. To that aim, the tattoo supervisor would help prisoners develop digital tattoo art portfolios, earn licenses as tattoo professionals and provide direction for future employment.

What are state prison officials looking for in a tattoo program supervisor? They want a licensed artist with at least three years of experience and a “strong, well-rounded portfolio.” The temporary position would last up to three years and pay anywhere from $58,986 to $86,923 each year. The job would be based out of the Stillwater prison, according to the state's listing.

Minnesota is not the first to experiment with a state-sponsored prison tattoo program. In 2005, Canada had a short-lived pilot program in six of its federal prisons with the aim of curbing the spread of hepatitis C and HIV.

Canada’s Conservative-led government at the time questioned the price tag of the program, which cost more than $300,000 to start and was expected to cost more than $600,000 each year, CBC News reported in 2006. The government nixed the program and opted to back other initiatives such as education programs on the risks of HIV and hepatitis C transmission from tattoos.

There is limited data on how effective legal prison tattoo programs are at reducing the transmission of bloodborne disease in prisons. Supporters of the Canadian program in the 2000s said the government did not give its tattoo program enough time to prove its effectiveness.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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