Erasing bad ink behind bars

Sacramento-based tattoo removal company delivering its services to inmates in Elk Grove and Folsom

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the November 15, 2018, issue.

If you ever looked at a face or neck tattoo and thought, “Good luck getting a job there, pal,” know that you’re not alone. It’s crossed Sheriff Scott Jones’ mind, too.

The sheriff last week received county approval to bring a tattoo removal company into his Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center next year. The $30,000, one-year contract with Inkdoctors, A Medical Corporation, which does business in Sacramento, Stockton and Berkeley as, is intended to help well-behaved inmates zap any unfortunate ink that may keep them from gainful employment once they’re released.

“It’s a big problem—‘I want to get a job, but I have a face tattoo,’” said Karlee Wootan, Inkoff’s operations manager.

On its website, Inkoff says it got started “in Sacramento to help people who need to remove or fade tattoos in order to make a fresh start. Our clients are new moms who want to remove their tramp stamp from their college days and the former prisoner who wants to remove his horn tattoos to find a job.”

Wootan credits the idea with bringing tattoo removal behind bars to Inkoff nurse Christopher Bendinelli.

“He’s been trying to do this for a long time and it’s finally happened,” Wootan said.

One of the reasons it took years to form these partnerships is that tattoo removal in a prison or jail is a complicated endeavor rife with security concerns. Think about it: Inmate X wants to get a gang tattoo removed. How will said gang feel about that if and when it finds out?

“There are a lot of things that a lot of people had to think about,” Wootan said.

A sheriff’s department staff report states that Inkdoctors will conduct the removal sessions out of a mobile unit. Each site visit will cost between $4,000 and $4,500 and last between four and six hours, during which some 50 inmates can be served. The money for the contract will come from the jail’s inmate welfare fund and through a state fund that pays county jails to incarcerate inmates who used to be sent to state prison.

A sheriff’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request for information.

When it comes to the actual process, Wootan said the size of the tattoo matters less than its quality. Professional tattoos can take twice as many sessions to remove than homemade or jailhouse tats, made with improvised “stick-and-pokes” using ballpoint ink or soot, Wootan said. Wootan said tattoos will have to be on the face, neck or hands, “generally things that can’t be covered for a job interview.”

Inkoff recently began conducting laser removal sessions at the women’s facility in Folsom State Prison, Wootan said, and also runs free removal clinics for people on parole or probation. In the Folsom women’s prison, the inmates have to be on good behavior to qualify. Wootan said she and Bendinelli fade a lot of gang tattoos, but also treat women who have been “branded” by human traffickers or pimps. Usually those tats are in the form of a name or a symbol, “just a way of saying this person’s mine,” Wootan said.

Wootan said Bendinelli is more inquisitive about the inmates’ back stories during these sessions, whereas she waits for them to open up to her. When they do, she said, they all make the same impression.

“They want to turn their lives around,” she said. “They want to make a change.”