During his testimonyin court, you may have noticed a few tattoos on convicted criminal and murderer Josh Gouker’s body: A teardrop underneath his eye, an image on his hand, two words on his lower arm. Gouker is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his stepson, Trey Zwicker, but do his tattoos have anything to do with the murder or his time in prison?
Potentially, according to retired law enforcement official and prison culture expert Richard Lichten. He says an inmate’s tattoos always have a personal meaning, regardless of that person's affiliation.
“Typically, people get tattoos in prison to support their race and the people around them,” says Lichten. “I’ve talked to many inmates and it’s always about what’s important to them. It can be something personal, like a spouse’s name or a Bible quote, or to belong to a group, to intimidate others, or to tell a story.”
Of course, the meaning of each tattoo is different and doesn’t necessarily mean that the wearer has been to prison, but some tattoos are more common among inmates, according to a report by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. The teardrop tattoo is one of them, but it can have a variety of meanings: News reports are littered with accounts about its association with a committed murder, a long prison sentence, mourning of a murdered friend or family member, or having been raped in prison. But it might also mean “ somebody’s mother doesn’t have a son anymore” or that an inmate has “ had a sad life,” according to historian Christine Brady of the Idaho State Historical Society.
Some designs are more elementary and can be tattooed onto the body with basic instruments. Take a look at the three-dot or the five-dot tattoos. Respectively, they mean — among other things — the three words “Mi Vida Loca,” according to law enforcement officer Andrew Eways, and that the person is protected by a group, according to a report by the Canada Border Service Agency.
Others are more elaborate and range from knuckle tattoos to arm sleeves to full-body shirts filled with signs, letters, and numbers that represent the inmate’s affiliation. Lichten says these tattoos require some MacGyver-ing of fairly common items like pencils, staples, and newspaper ink, some of which can be purchased through commissary.
“In prisons, inmates tend to be good with electronics and they make their own devices. They’ll steal a needle from the nurse or pick a staple out of a magazine and attach it to the end of a pencil or a toothbrush. For the ink, they melt newspaper ink and press it down below the skin, the old-fashioned way — it’s very painful,” says Lichten.
But let’s talk about the inmate’s expression of affiliation. Lichten tells HLN that “supporting your race is how you survive prison.” He adds, “It doesn’t mean joining a gang or committing crimes, but when time comes, you have to support your race. If one day, all African-Americans decide they won’t go to the yard [and you’re African-American] and you decide to do your own thing, you’re going to have some issues.”
To show their affiliation, a lot of inmates get tattoos that represent the gang they belong to. Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and La Nuestra Familia are some of the largest gang networks prevalent in the U.S. prison system, according to the Florida Department of Corrections, and each one has distinct tattoo signage (see gallery above).
Lichten says these tats are meant to be seen, not hidden, so inmates can get tattoos on exposed parts of their bodies, like the neck, head or even face, and, often, they don’t stop at just one. But here’s the kicker: Tattoos are prohibited in prison.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, having a tattoo kit is considered contraband for a number of reasons: It can be used as a weapon and it spreads infections and diseases. Lichten also adds that tattoos can mean gang membership, so prisons don’t allow them.
“You can get in trouble for getting it, giving it, or possessing the tools. And the lookout is just as guilty as the artist and the wearer,” says Lichten.
Still, he adds that it goes on all the time. So if many tattoos are visible, how do inmates get away with them? “It’s done in secret, but it’s done,” says Lichten.
He says the best way to control any contraband is to do as many scheduled and unscheduled searches as possible. “The more searches, the less weapons, contraband, etc.,” says Lichten.
Of course, the problem with constant searches is that they require a lot of time and personnel. Lichten tells HLN that in order to do a search properly, corrections officials have to lock down the entire cell block and search through every inch of it, which can take hours. “Unless you have a team specifically for that, it can impact the rest of the operation,” he adds.
So ,you see, tattooing is serious business in prison. “They have meaning,” says Lichten.
“When you get out, you still have to wear those tattoos. If you’re getting your neck tatted up or an arm sleeve, it’s going to have an impact on you in the work force.” But, he adds, “People spending 30, 40, 50 years in prison don’t care about that.”