ERASING THE PAST; LASER TATTOO REMOVAL for Ex-Convicts, a Prison Tattoo Can Be an Obstacle to Finding a Job on the Outside

Article excerpt

Byline: DANA TREEN

It was only a two-second laser blast to his left cheek, but Jimmie Wallace hopes it will open the doors to a new life.

The treatment last month was the first that will eventually dissolve a tiny mark, a teardrop tattoo that has a meaning much larger than its size would indicate. Wallace got the tattoo in prison, where he spent nearly nine of the past 16 years.

"I'm tired of people judging me by my appearance, you know, this tattoo," the 41-year-old Jacksonville resident said in the Orange Park dermatology office where he took the treatment.

"If I can get this off, I'll have a better opportunity," he said. "I've been thinking about it since I violated my parole in '05."

The teardrop - which brings credibility and respect on the streets - severely hobbles men like Wallace when they return from prison and begin looking for a job, said Cathy Chaydeayne, coordinator of the Sheriff's Office prison re-entry program that arranged to have the mark removed at no charge by dermatologist Fred Eaglstein.

Chaydeayne said people are more accepting of ex-cons when they make that break with their past. It also is a sign of an attempt at redemption.

"You can do it and it's done and you have put that behind you," she said. "You can move on to the next challenge."

Chaydeayne said Wallace is the first inmate in the program to take the step in some time but said a couple of others may be next.

Wallace has been in and out of Florida prisons on charges including burglary, trafficking in stolen goods, grand theft and finally for breaking parole.

Wallace said his tattoo represents time he spent in prison but can denote gang membership or that the owner has committed a homicide. Whatever its intent, it is a mark of respect to some and offers protection, he said.

"People don't bother with me," he said. "They go their own way."

But that respect, based in fear, also can cause job offers to evaporate or strain family relationships.

"I go on a job, they see that teardrop and they kind of shun away from me," he said.

Chaydeayne has no statistics on whether tattoo removal is growing among ex-convicts, though she hears of more cases in the state.

In part, she said, many may not know they may be able to get help with the procedure, which can cost hundreds of dollars and take several treatments.

"Unless you are getting a job in a tattoo parlor, I can't see where it would be a benefit," she said.

A 2008 University of North Florida survey showed 56 percent of Jacksonville's largest employers were willing to hire ex-offenders or already employ them.

But Chaydeayne agrees with Wallace, who said the tattoo was an obstacle even to getting work at a fast-food restaurant where the manager was wary that customers would be uneasy.

"It's just one less barrier and you chop off every barrier that you can," she said. "It's something you can do concretely."

THE PROCEDURE

Wallace was at the Dermatology and Laser Center on June 18, where technician Marcia Haines numbed the spot on his cheek and protective patches were placed over his eyes.

"You might see a little bit of a flash," Haines said. "It makes a bit of a popping noise."

Then it was over.

"You're done," Haines said after poising the laser over the teardrop and releasing a short discharge.

"Huh?" Wallace asked.

"You're done," she replied.

Beneath the skin, the laser breaks up the ink pigment, which is then carried away by the body's lymphatic system, Eaglstein said. After waiting at least eight weeks, Wallace will return for more treatments until all the pigment is gone. …