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bloodborne infections, prisoners, tattooing



  1. Awofeso, Niyi PhD, MPH


Tattooing exemplifies several important links between criminal justice systems, public health, custodial management, and the social organization and behavior of prisoners. This commentary examines the efficiency of setting up legal, prison-financed tattooing centers as a way of discouraging illicit tattooing and minimizing bloodborne disease transmission risks in prison settings. The author posits that the impact of legal prison tattooing centers is unlikely to be significant since less than 5 percent of bloodborne infectious diseases have been reliably attributable to tattooing, either in prison or in community settings. Behavioral studies indicate that prisoners at the highest risk of contracting bloodborne infections would probably not utilize legal prison tattooing services. Furthermore, such a service is likely to be very expensive relative to potential health benefits. Strategies focussed on reducing injecting drug use among prisoners will yield greater benefits for reducing bloodborne disease transmission per dollar spent compared with setting up legal prison tattooing parlors. Social marketing of temporary tattooing alternatives (eg, henna tattoos) to traditional illicit tattooing techniques in prison settings is potentially valuable, as temporary tattoos pose no infection risk and may also facilitate reduction in occupational and social stigma associated with many illicit prison tattoos.