Institute for Bio-Cultural Research

Professor Steve

Research Project: Do tattoos significantly correlate with criminal and antisocial behaviour?

Posted by Steven on April 29, 2011 at 4:29 PM

The use of certain types of anti-social tattoos significantly correlates with criminality (see Appendix A).  However, I think that tattoo removal should be incorporated into the US prison system as a way for inmates to more smoothly transition back into society.

"A symbolic way to show changed beliefs and behaviors is to consider removal of prison, anti-social themed or visible tattoos. Tattoo removal programs are available outside prison (Bazan, Harris, & Lorentzen, 2002); however, tattoo removal programs in correctional settings may prove beneficial as well. Some inmates expressed regret regarding some of their tattoos in their responses. They, of course, would be excellent candidates for such programs, and may find that the removal of such tattoos could result in a smoother and more positive transition into society." Alicia Rozycki


Appendix A.

Original Dissertation by Alicia T. Rozycki - 2007

Edited by Steven Sripp - 2011

Inmates with prison tattoos evidenced some increased criminal thinking, a greater risk for recidivism, and greater institutional behavioral problems than inmates with non- prison tattoos, inmates with no tattoos, and college students with tattoos. Results from the examination of how much, where, and what type of image (anti-social images in this case, not prison tattoos) were somewhat surprising with mixed results. As predicted, the number of tattoos acquired on one’s body has little to do with affiliation with criminal thinking, recidivism, and poor institutional behavior. Tattoos on the hands, head, face, or neck had nothing to do with criminal thinking but influenced recidivism and number of disciplinary infractions. Comparisons examining anti-social themed tattoos with non-anti-social themed tattoos produced similar results as the visible tattoos, with the exception that the Mollification scale of the criminal thinking measure indicated group differences. Therefore, visible and anti-social themed tattoos influence recidivism, acting out in prison, and weakly, if at all, tendency toward criminal thinking. Thus, correctional staff should be most concerned about inmates who have visible, anti-social themed tattoos, as well as prison themed tattoos, regardless of the amount of skin surface covered with tattoos. Psychologists in correctional settings could incorporate this information into assessment and treatment planning, maintaining awareness that inmates who meet these criteria may be particularly well-suited for treatment that focuses on reducing problematic institutional behavior as well as recidivistic behavior.

This dissertation sought to explore differences between inmates with prison tattoos (e.g., spider webs, clocks, prison towers) and inmates without prison tattoos (e.g., animals, tattoos of ethnic origin) when examining the prevalence of criminal thinking, risk for recidivism, number of convictions, and number of disciplinary infractions. These groups were compared to inmates without tattoos and college students with tattoos. 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, recidivism, and disciplinary infractions.

Discussion of Findings

Inmates with prison tattoos endorsed Historical Criminal Thinking, Superoptimism, and Self-Assertion thinking styles more so than the other three groups of participants. Additionally, the prison tattoo group produced higher scores on Mollification and Denial of Harm than inmates with no tattoos and college students with tattoos. Although there were no other statistically significant differences between the prison tattoo group and the other inmate groups on the remaining PICTS subscales, a trend was noted in that the prison tattoo group had the highest mean scores on all subscales of the PICTS than all other groups. Another trend was that college students scored lower than the three inmate groups on 14 of the 15 PICTS scales.

Thus, inmates with prison tattoos are more likely to have a history of harboring criminal beliefs, believe the negative consequences of engaging in criminal activity will be avoided, and hold the belief that one can force others to act as one wishes in order to obtain a goal, regardless of how others may be harmed (Walters, 2001) compared to inmates with non-prison tattoos, no tattoos and college students with tattoos. The Historical Criminal Thinking scale is significantly correlated with the Self-Assertion Factor scale (Walters, 2001), which may partially explain why the prison tattoo group elevated both of the scales. Yet, the Self-Assertion Factor scale also correlates highly with the Entitlement and Superoptimism (the concept that negative consequences will be avoided) scales (Walters, 2001), and the prison tattoo group failed to be differentiated from the other inmate groups on these scales. It is unclear why inmates with prison tattoos did not similarly elevate these two scales. The fact that these inmates have prison tattoos, a symbol of criminal life, with a history of criminal thinking (Historical Criminal Thinking) suggest a long standing identification with a criminal way of life. The belief that negative outcomes for actions will be avoided also coincides with those who are career criminals (and could provide some explanation for their willingness to acquire tattoos with socially damning images that could preclude the attainment of gainful, pro-social opportunities, such as proper employment), as does the belief that one can treat others as one wishes and be unconcerned with any harm inflicted. That an individual believes he will avoid punishment and manipulates others to meet his needs suggests a self-centeredness that is not only associated with criminal thinking, but is often displayed by career criminals (Walters, 1990). Thus, inmates with prison tattoos seem to harbor a greater commitment to the criminal lifestyle with an irrational perception of entitlement, or sense of power, that the other inmates, and college students, failed to demonstrate.

Additionally, inmates with prison tattoos tended to blame others for their involvement in criminal activity, and minimized and rationalized harm inflicted on others as a result of their own criminal activities (Walters, 2001), compared to inmates without prison tattoos and college students with tattoos. Immaturity is inherent in these two thinking styles as they both capture an inability to accept responsibility for one’s actions. Perhaps with tattoos, prison tattoos in particular, there is a tendency to remain “stuck” and not develop into a productive and even prosocial adult.

Inmates with prison tattoos were at greatest risk for recidivism as compared to all other groups (i.e., inmates with non-prison tattoos, inmates with no tattoos, and college students with tattoos). It should also be noted that all three inmate groups mean scores were in the high-moderate risk level (as expected, college students’ mean scores were in the low risk level range). Thus, of the four possible risk levels (low, low-moderate, high-moderate, high), all three prison groups were in the same classification, although the prison tattoo group was, on average, in the highest end of that range.

No statistically significant differences emerged between the inmates with prison tattoos and the other two groups of inmates (i.e., inmates with non-prison tattoos and inmates without tattoos). This finding initially seems to contradict the results of the recidivism measure, as it seems plausible that those who are at higher risk for recidivism would have a higher number of total convictions. However, upon further examination, inmates with prison tattoos had the highest average number of convictions (mean of 6 convictions, range of 5 to 7), then the non-prison tattoo group (mean of 5 convictions, range of 4 to 6), and the no tattoo group had the lowest average number of convictions (mean of 4 convictions, range of 4 to 6). Thus, although power likely limited the ability to detect statistical significance, practically it appears that, on average, inmates with prison tattoos are likely to enter prison with a greater number of convictions than their inmate without prison tattoos and inmates with no tattoos counterparts.

The contention that inmates with prison tattoos would not present as greater behavioral problems for staff than the other two groups was based on criminal lifestyle theory (Walters, 1990). This study proposed that inmates with prison tattoos would have a stronger affiliation with criminal thinking styles than the other inmate groups, and these ways of thinking would be associated with the criminal lifestyle or career criminality. Walters (1990) proposed that career criminals are actually well behaved while incarcerated. In other words, career criminals rarely cause behavioral disturbances, and it is only upon release that they find it very difficult to change their behavior as their criminal thinking overpowers rational, prosocial thought (Walters, 1990). Thus, it was hypothesized that the prison tattoo group would behave relatively well while incarcerated, yet the opposite was found—they are the most troublesome group of the three for staff. Note, no differences emerged between the non-prison group and the no tattoo group. Although these findings appear to contradict Walters (1990) theory, it is possible that inmates with prison tattoos represent a unique subset of the career criminal. In any case, of these three inmate groups, inmates with prison tattoos are the group of inmates that should be of greatest concern to correctional staff in terms of management problems and therefore staff resources.

As predicted, there were no statistically significant differences between inmates with greater skin surface covered and inmates with less skin surface covered with regard to criminal thinking, recidivism, and number of self-reported disciplinary infractions. The tattoo literature explores differences between individuals with tattoos in a variety of ways, including the amount of skin surface covered. Given today’s “tattoo renaissance” and perhaps greater societal acceptance of tattooing behavior (see Miami Ink, LA Ink here for examples of media interest), it is reasonable to suggest that the amount of skin surface covered with tattoos would be of little importance. This has been explored in the literature (see Vail, 1999), and people who choose to acquire tattoo sleeves, back pieces, or body suits can be perceived as simply “collectors” and not as pathological. This study found that inmates with greater percentage of skin covered compared to inmates with less skin surface covered presented as no more pathological with regard to criminal behaviors (i.e., criminal thinking, risk for recidivism, disciplinary infractions).

Although tattoos may be more acceptable in today’s culture, there remains a stigma within the tattoo community that hands, neck, and head are to be left undecorated (Steward, 1990). For professional appearances as well as the avoidance of stigma, there has been a long-standing belief that tattoos should be limited to areas that can be covered by clothing (Steward, 1990). Although no group differences emerged with regards to criminal thinking styles in this study, inmates with visible tattoos did evidence greater risk of recidivism and institutional behavior problems than inmates with non-visible tattoos. It seems reasonable to suggest that visible tattoos may create problems (e.g., difficulties finding gainful employment) for inmates when they are released back into society. Perhaps knowingly choosing to brandish oneself with visible tattoos that may contribute to re-entry adjustment difficulties, indicates of an attitude of indifference about societal rules and norms, hence greater violation of prison rules and regulations and risk for recidivism.

Regarding criminal thinking, inmates with anti-social themed tattoos scored higher than inmates with non-anti-social themed tattoos on only one subscale (Mollification) of the PICTS. The Mollification subscale indicates a thinking style where individuals have a tendency to blame others for their criminality, such as government or family (Walters, 2001). Furthermore, inmates with anti-social themed tattoos were at greater risk of recidivism than inmates with non-anti-social tattoos and were more likely to have created institutional behavior problems for staff.

The decision to acquire tattoos that have anti-social theme (e.g., hostile messages, aggressive, vulgar, morbid, or demonic images, or dire circumstances, or images or themes of societal rules violations) can be a telling choice. Of the endless possibilities of tattoo images, these inmates chose images that communicate anger, hostility, and vulgarity. Individuals with these tattoos were examined separately from individuals with prison themed tattoos because prison themed tattoos are not necessarily anti-social (e.g., spider webs, clocks), although it is possible (particularly since one criteria for inclusion in the prison tattoo group is to have tattoos that were made in prison). It was expected that inmates with anti-social themed tattoos would have thinking styles aligned with a criminal lifestyle; however, these inmates only evidenced increased likelihood for blaming others for their criminal involvement. Perhaps this tendency to blame others is connected to anti-social themed tattoos in particular. For instance, some inmates are likely to feel victimized by society and angry for perceived injustices. In turn, they illustrate this anger with anti-social themed tattoos like “Fuck the World.” It was of little surprise that the anti-social themed tattoo group would be more likely than the comparison group to blame others for their criminal actions, be at high risk for returning to prison, and are more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems while incarcerated. These problems are expected with individuals who may have an anti-social view of the world, and certainly these tattoos reflect that view.


It has been suggested that psychologists could examine tattoos and provide interpretations about the tattoos and what they could mean for the individual in terms of recidivism and personality attitudes (Palmero, 2004). This study sought to make a contribution toward this goal. Although results are mixed, it seems that inmates with prison themed tattoos, visible tattoos, and anti-social themed tattoos are more likely to be at risk for recidivism and more likely to create management problems for staff while incarcerated, in addition to inmates with prison themed tattoos and anti-social tattoos carrying some criminal thinking styles.

Thus, taking note of inmates who have these types of tattoos may help correctional staff in alerting them to the inmates who are expected to be problematic. Planning could occur during the initial screening assessment, as well as repeat assessments to scan for newly acquired tattoos. When conducting assessments of inmates, inmates with prison, visible, or anti-social tattoos may be more likely to present with anti-social traits or personality disorder and may require increased management risk than inmates without such tattoos. These screenings could influence placements within institutions, i.e., housing assignments. These inmates could also be targeted as inmates to direct toward any programming geared toward reducing recidivism and increasing chances of successful life changes following their incarceration (e.g., career and educational programs, family programs, counseling services). Additional planning efforts could include alerting staff to be particularly mindful and alert when working with these inmates, as institutional behavior problems include a wide range of offenses, including violent offenses toward staff. Knowing what can be expected of certain inmates may help prison staff develop appropriate correctional management strategies to reduce institutional problems.

It is also worth noting that all three of the inmate groups were at a moderate - high risk for recidivism. This is not particularly surprising given the high rate of recidivism within the U.S. correctional system (Toch, 1992a). Clearly increased efforts need to be focused on efforts to rehabilitate inmates to reduce risk for recidivism. Some ideas are presented below that may help with this problem.

It is commonly accepted that treatment efforts should include cognitive-behavioral interventions (Gendreau, & Andrews, 1990), which would likely include discussion of the criminal thinking / lifestyle theory and recidivistic behavior. In addition however, treatment staff could note how prison, visible, and anti-social themed tattoos symbolize a criminal way of life and a resistance to changing and participating in pro-social and productive ways. Treatment staff can also process the meaning of these tattoos on an individual level. Some inmates with prison tattoos may be interested in demonstrating their bravado to be perceived as “bad” or “tough” and do so with the use of prison tattoos, anti-socially themed tattoos, and/or visible tattoos. Perhaps the acquisition of these types of tattoos speaks to a rebellious nature (Steward, 1990) and possibly explains the link with increased number of disciplinary reports and subsequently increased risk for recidivism. In other words, inmates with these types of tattoos may be more rebellious and challenging of societal norms. Thus, it is possible that inmates with prison tattoos wear their criminality as a badge of honor and are more willing to behave stereotypically antisocially and therefore outside of institutional rules. Whether or not these ideas hold true for individual inmates and implications of such tattoos could be discussed in individual or group therapy sessions.

A symbolic way to show changed beliefs and behaviors is to consider removal of prison, anti-social themed or visible tattoos. Tattoo removal programs are available outside prison (Bazan, Harris, & Lorentzen, 2002); however, tattoo removal programs in correctional settings may prove beneficial as well. Some inmates expressed regret regarding some of their tattoos in their responses. They, of course, would be excellent candidates for such programs, and may find that the removal of such tattoos could result in a smoother and more positive transition into society.

On the other hand, institutional management of prison tattooing may also prove beneficial, particularly with reducing or eliminating prison and anti-socially themed or visible tattoos. Such a program has been enacted in Canadian prisons (NY Times, Nov. 24, 2005). Although results of this program remain to be determined, such programs offer promise. Tattooing programs also have the potential to reduce the acquisition of problematic tattoos that negatively impact inmates’ positive opportunities upon release. An opportunity to acquire tattoos in the prison tattoo parlor could also be used as positive reinforcement of good behavior. Additionally, institutional management of tattooing could greatly reduce disease transmission, a common problem in correctional facilities (Godin, Gagnon, Alary, Noel, & Morisette, 2001; Krebs, 2002; Rotily, et al., 2001).

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