Prison tattoos as a reflection of the criminal lifestyle and predictor of recidivism



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Texas Tech University


Findings indicate that 10 to 19 percent of the general public have tattoos, whereas the prevalence of tattoos in the prison population ranges anywhere from 15 to 65 percent. Prison tattoos differ from non-prison tattoos in their history, types of images obtained, and their means of application if obtained while incarcerated. It has been speculated that tattoos may be acquired by inmates to make a statement of identity that can be directed to others, to oneself, or both.

Overall, it seems there may be a connection between criminals who obtain prison tattoos, i.e., either tattoos that were made in prison or that are of prison images, and identification with criminality as a subculture or way of life. The concept of a career criminal stems from empirical research showing that the majority of crimes are committed by a minority of criminals, i.e., a percentage of criminals are repeat offenders thereby making criminality their career of choice. This subgroup of offenders is essentially identifying with a criminal lifestyle and a criminal culture. Since these individuals are criminals for life, recidivism is connected to this theory. Statistics show there are a greater percentage of repeat offenders who have tattoos as compared to the general public, although the type of tattoos was unspecified.

This dissertation sought to explore if there is a difference between inmates who have prison tattoos (n = 81) and inmates who have non-prison tattoos (e.g., animals, tattoos of ethnic origin; n = 75). These groups were compared to inmates without tattoos (n =52) and college students with tattoos (n = 66). Multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA) procedures indicated that those with prison tattoos differed from the other groups when examining their identification with the criminal lifestyle, as measured by the Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles Version 4.0 (PICTS). Additionally, analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) procedures indicated that inmates with prison tattoos differed from the other groups regarding their risk of recidivism, which was explored using the Self-Appraisal Questionnaire (SAQ). Analysis of variance (ANOVA) procedures indicated no differences between inmate groups with regard to number of convictions. ANCOVA procedures indicated that those with prison tattoos had a higher number of self reported disciplinary infractions than the other two prison groups. Additional analyses explored differences between inmates with visible and non-visible tattoos, greater and lesser skin surface covered in tattoos, and anti-social or non-anti-social tattoos and criminal thinking styles, recidivism, and number of disciplinary infractions. Overall, results indicated that those with visible tattoos and anti-social tattoos were at greater risk for recidivism and had a higher number of self-reported disciplinary infractions than their respective comparison groups; inmates with anti-social tattoos endorsed one of the criminal thinking styles. No statistically significant differences emerged between inmates with greater or lesser skin surface covered and the aforementioned variables. Results of this study are thought to be of benefit to correctional facility staff in that examination of tattoos, especially prison tattoos, anti-social tattoos, and visible tattoos, may serve as a quick means of assessing inmates who may be more likely to be recidivists and more likely to cause behavioral problems in prison. Suggestions for addressing recidivism and possibly reducing problematic behavior while incarcerated are provided.



Recidivism, Criminal lifestyle, Inmates, Tattoos