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Former inmates get fresh start with tattoo removal service

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

Charles Greene got his first tattoo 20 years ago in jail.

One of his fellow inmates melted the wax from a chess piece and then, using a needle, plucked at his skin so the ink could dye it. His first few jailhouse tattoos were out of sight, on his legs. Soon the black ink covered his arms, hands and neck.

In 2004, Greene got the initials of a family member who had died tattooed on his right cheek.

Now, out of jail — for the last time, he hopes — and looking for jobs, the tattoo is a reminder of a life he’s left behind, and a barrier to a better future.

“This is not something I want on me,” Greene said. “I wouldn’t hire me.”

Greene, 49, was released from the Richmond City Justice Center in October after serving 2½ years for cocaine possession. He has been in and out of jail since he was 18 and battled addiction nearly as long.

While incarcerated, Greene enrolled in the REAL (Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles) program, a voluntary program that treats jail life like a full-time job. Inmates are required to complete substance abuse counseling and classes throughout a 40-hour week. Courses include remedial math, anger management, fatherhood and creative writing.

“The REAL program saved my life,” Greene said. “Before, I had always said, ‘programs aren’t for me.’ But being out ain’t for me, either. ... I finally got it right.”

That’s how Greene met Sarah Scarbrough, who created and runs the REAL program at the jail. As Greene’s release date neared, Scarbrough talked to him about his future and how, this time, to stay out of jail.

“Sarah told me, ‘That’s not a good look,’” Greene said referring to the tattoo on his cheek. “‘That’s the old Charlie.’ I understood what she was telling me.”

She proposed having it removed, and created a partnership with East Coast Laser Tattoo Removal, which offers its services to recently released program participants in exchange for community service hours. The focus is visible tattoos on the face, neck or hands, as well as gang-related tattoos, according to Chuck Powell of East Coast Laser Tattoo Removal.

The process usually takes several months. Powell estimated that Greene’s tattoo will take about nine treatments spaced about six weeks apart — allowing the body time to process the dense, foreign material that the laser blasts apart when aimed at the tattoo.

A typical treatment costs $80 to $100, and Powell offers REAL program participants a $10 credit for every hour of community service.

Greene has volunteered with the REAL Life program, a nonprofit started by graduates of the REAL program who have been released. They have monthly meetings and have started a clothes closet.

Powell — who is not a doctor; no medical training is required — started the laser tattoo removal business 3½ years ago in Henrico County on Broad Street, just outside Richmond.

His typical clients are in their late 20s and got a tattoo when they were 18. The placement might not be conducive for an office environment, he said, or just bad artwork.

Although tattoos have become more mainstream, they are still a significant barrier to employment, especially for felons, Powell said.

“I don’t always know the why,” Powell said. “But we’re here for people who want to remove (parts) of their past.”

The company works with probation officers offering similar exchanges to former state and federal inmates.

Greene, who underwent his second treatment last week, said it’s painful — “I’d rather get it on than take it off.” Powell said the pain is similar, equating it to the snapping of a rubber band.

Scarbrough, as well as others in corrections, believes tattoo removal can put a dent in recidivism.

A 2013 study published by the International Journal of Criminology and Sociology found that inmates with one or more visible tattoos had an increased likelihood of re-offending for a violent crime within three years after prison release.

“Many people don’t understand that removing certain tattoos is part of a person’s recovery process,” said Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr.

“Now, we have someone who wants to educate himself, who wants to work, who wants to be a boon to the community and not a burden, but these tattoos and markings have created a roadblock for him,” Woody added. “This is just one more piece of the puzzle to a full recovery from a dangerous lifestyle.”

Greene said that although the “GRR” tattoo on his cheek is deeply personal, it’s something he’s ready to let go.

The “G” is for Greene, the last name he shares with his cousin who raised him. One “R” is for Roy, his cousin, and the other is for Randolph, Greene’s middle name.

“I had to let that go, that somebody close to me is dead,” Greene said.

In jail, tattoos were camouflage, a way of fitting in, he said.

“It gave you a statement,” he said. “That you were tough.”

But the tattoos intended to impress his fellow inmates now intimidate folks he meets outside a cell.

“Because of my tattoos and my record, they’re going to look at me different,” Greene said. “I’m not ashamed no more. It’s hard to get people to give you a chance when you don’t look like you’ve changed.”

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