Erasing the past, tattoo removal program giving San Quentin inmates a second chance

Inside the walls of the former San Quentin State Prison, they are giving some inmates a chance to erase a part of their past, with the relaunch of the Tattoo Removal Program.

The program first started in 2018, but funding was pulled during the COVID pandemic, and this July, the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation reinstated the program at ten of its facilities.

Kolby Southwood, who is scheduled for release in 14 months, said the tattoo removal program will help him get a fresh start.

“When you are younger, you get a dumb tattoo,” he said. “And then you realize later on, ‘Oh man, now I got to live with this forever.”

Southwood is covered in body art, including depictions of the bible on his left arm.

“This tattoo on my left arm is a portrait to the change that I made to God in my life,” said Southwood. “The moment I changed my life I tried to change the body art that I have.”

But it is the tattoos on his hands that he would like to forget.

“I got woodpile tattoos on me when I rolled with the whites,” he said.

A dark reminder of why he was in prison in the first place.

“I become addicted to hard drugs and my life spiraled out of control,” said Southwood. “I don’t want to explain why I have the tattoos like that on my body.”

The process for removing the tattoos is simple but a bit painful.Chris Bendinelli with Ink Doctors explained the process usually take five to seven visits before the tattoo is fully removed.

“It’s like a 1,000 rubber bands hitting the skin,” said Bendinelli. “What is happening is the laser is hitting the ink and breaking it up.”

This past year, Governor Gavin Newsom renamed the prison to San Quentin Rehabilitation Center as part of his goal to reimagine the prison as a place to help inmates become productive members of society once released.

Kemiko Tolon, the Tattoo Removal Program Director, said by removing unwanted body art it gives inmates, who are ready to leave prison, a better chance of making it on the outside.

“We understand how people can be judged,” said Tolon. “They may have unsightly tattoos, offensive tattoos, gang tattoos, and all of these things can prevent someone from gaining viable employment.”

For inmates like Daniel Barragan, whose entire body and neck is covered with tattoos, he said he is looking forward to a full clean slate by removing most of his body art.

“Clean slate and fresh start,” he said. “I was extreme out there before; I think I can be extreme for the positive.”

Barragan will start with the tattoos on his hands and three dots on his face.

“The three dots signify the Southern California gang members,” said Barragan. “The old Daniel was a monster, a drug addict, a gang member and somebody that really had no future.”

He hopes his new future will be not only positive for himself but an example for young gang members.

“Staying sober, getting a job, maybe a career, and being a family man,” said Barragan.

For Kolby Southwood, he looks forward to reuniting with his kids, teaching them to fish and play sports like a regular father.

“My son is 9, and my daughter is 8,” he said. “They are the loves of my life.”

Because he knows, with a clean slate, the future is now about more than just him.

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