Prisons, Gangs, Tattoos, Removal & Liberty

Pictured above: a prison style tattoo gun. Usually crafted from a guitar string, pen barrel and a battery unit from a radio.


  • Liberty Tattoo Removal gives opportunities for individuals tattooed from an unsightly past.

  • Program Coordinator Janet Allenspach says the program most commonly sees tattoos from prison: of drugs, naked women and gang affiliations.

  • Formerly incarcerated inmate and gang member had an area code tattoo removed from his neck.

  • Ex-Correctional Officer Debra Hillman of the California Men’s Colony talks about repercussions for inmates who break the rules by tattooing inside.


‘Don’t Cover It Up, Take It Off’ reads the flier for the Liberty Tattoo Removal Program inside CAPSLO, a nonprofit in San Luis Obispo.

Janet Allenspach has been the programs coordinator for the past nine years, and helped to lobby it into existence. LIberty Tattoo Removal started, she says, “because law enforcement and concerned citizens saw a need for formerly incarcerated to get their prison or gang tattoos removed in order to find employment and get off the streets.”

Allenspach has seen all kinds of different tattoos. “But lot’s of gang or drug tattoos,” she says. “Naked women, drug paraphernalia, things like that.”

The program trades 16 community service hours for one laser treatment, for those who qualify for the program, meeting requirements that range from past affiliation in gangs, or with substance abuse and even domestic violence issues.

“A lot of what we see is pretty messed up,”
- Janet Allenspach, CAPSLO

“A lot of what we see is pretty messed up,” she says. “For many individuals we treat, it’s almost like they are getting the tattoo experience they should of had originally.”

“They are excited, and liberated at the change. A sign of overcoming obstacle, or struggle.”

She remembers one patient that went through the program, 25-year-old Richard Hernandez, a formerly incarcerated individual and a two-year sober, recovering addict.

“Growing up in a rough neighborhood, the gang members are the role models,” says Hernandez over the phone from his apartment in Santa Maria. After spending time in and out of jail as a youth, he ended up behind bars for more than a year, getting out at the age of 21.

He said that while he was there, drugs were available, gang activity was inevitable and tattoo art became a way of mental escape. Although tattoos are commonly used inside as represent for an individual and their gang affiliation, Hernandez said, “While your in there, it feels like personal liberation.”

Debra Hillman worked at the California Men’s Colony for 25 years, retiring a few years ago with lieutenant standing. From her experience as a correctional, she said tattoos are something that is forbidden and rampant.

“When an inmate is caught with fresh ink,” she says, “they lose time.”

It’s not always related to gang affiliation, “not every time,” says Hillman, “sometimes it’s for personal reasons–maybe they’re going through something in their life,”

“prisoners don’t really have personal lives.”
-Debra Hillman, Ex-Correctional Officer

“But of course, prisoners don’t really have personal lives.” Hillman said.

“they make from them from the cartridges from the ink pens they steal from the education center. Or they’ll take the motors out of their radios, to make into a gun.”

Hernandez, thinking back, says it wasn’t until he got out that he realized how great the scope was between being a functioning member of society.

“All I knew was that I did not want to end up back in there.”


*Results compiled from this 2008 report.

  • Hepatitus is rampant. Prisons don’t test inmates for it among introduction, and in the study 27% of respondents reported somebody using the same needle.

  • It’s common: 41% of respondents reported receiving a tattoo while behind bars.

  • There are two main methods. The stick and poke requires only a needle and ink cartridge, while some make tattoo guns from the motors in the radios.

Hernandez decided to change. He followed his mandated drug and probation programs and used the Liberty Tattoo Removal program, exchanging more than 30 hours of community service to  remove a large “805” prison tattoo from the right side of his neck.

“It definitely helped me to move on, take my life back.” Henandez said.

He said he finds some enjoyment in the job he’s had over the past 8 months, and relishes in things like using the internet, having a cell phone and still, drawing—something that drew him to tattooing and gang culture in the first place.

“I think that I will still get tattoos in the future,” says Hernandez. “But in a place that can be hidden, and original art works.”