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Why correctional facilities should photograph detainee tattoos

Tattoos have come to be as significant an identifier as fingerprints and intake photos


By Sean Stewart, C1 Contributor

Many facilities photograph tattoos of incoming detainees and use the photos as a classification and identification tool. Tattoos can provide indications of links or ties to gangs and/or security threat groups. Law enforcement can also use the photos as possible identifiers of an individual at a later date and time. On many occasions, crime victims may only be able to see or remember a tattoo.

Why photograph tattoos?

Photographing of tattoos undeniably assists law enforcement in identifying suspects of violent crimes and aids in criminal arrests. (Howard County Police Department via AP)
Photographing of tattoos undeniably assists law enforcement in identifying suspects of violent crimes and aids in criminal arrests. (Howard County Police Department via AP)

Jails typically book substantial numbers of detainees who are involuntarily confined, most of who are not honest, veracious, cooperative or compliant. Jail officials often have little information about or access to the detainees’ histories, attitudes, propensities and threat levels.

Identification technicians should not just ask detainees what tattoos they have and where, as detainees may provide misleading information. Photographing of tattoos is the least intrusive and most reliable and accurate form of documentation. If identification technicians were to document a detainee’s tattoos in writing, it would expose the detainee for a longer period. An identification technician can also misconstrue the look or meaning of the tattoo. 

Gang members and individual members of security threat groups will attempt to hide the meaning of their tattoos from staff. At the time a tattoo is documented/photographed, its meaning may not be evident to staff. The significance may only become evident after information has been distributed and obtained regarding what a specific tattoo may imply. This process can take days or even months to accomplish.

An investigator in one facility may have to reach out to additional investigators within other facilities and request assistance in the recognition of a specific tattoo. Once the tattoo has been deciphered and recognized as gang/security threat group related, staff are able to adjust classification if the detainee is still in custody or identify the detainee as a member of a specific gang/security threat group if he/she comes back into custody.

The understanding and deciphering of gang/security threat group tattoos provides better information to detention facilities regarding the process of proper classification of detainees. A record of tattoos is essential to this purpose.

Tattoos can help identify suspects, escapees

Over the years, important identifiers such as fingerprints, DNA and intake photos have identified suspects and helped solve crimes. Tattoos have come to be just as significant as these other identifiers.

A few years back, an individual was booked into the Pima County Jail. A couple of days after his arrest and subsequent booking into our facility, the Las Vegas Homicide Unit issued a warrant for his arrest. Furthermore, they placed a hold on him for extradition to Las Vegas, Nevada, on murder charges.

At some point during court proceedings, a Superior Court Judge ordered him temporarily transferred to the Arizona State Hospital (A.S.H.) to determine his competency. Thereafter the inmate escaped from A.S.H. by making a dummy that he placed in his bed just prior to the escape. He broke out of a bathroom window and fled through an opening in the bars.

The inmate had altered his appearance during his stay at the state hospital. He had grown his hair and a beard. With this in mind, when I received the Attempt to Locate (ATL) notice, I specifically added photographs of his tattoos as identifiers. Police apprehended him 24 hours after his escape. In due course, the El Mirage Police Department informed me the photographs of his tattoos were instrumental in the apprehension.

A newspaper article regarding the escape and capture indicated, “At first he denied being the escapee and said he was just trying to catch a ride to Las Vegas. But the sergeant recognized his tattoos, and eventually he gave up and told officers, ‘God helped me escape.’”

Photographing of tattoos undeniably assists law enforcement in identifying suspects of violent crimes and aids in criminal arrests, successively making our city streets safer and protecting our citizens from violence and criminal actions.


This information is solely intended for training and educational purposes and shall not be considered as legal advice. If you decide to use any concepts from this material, you should consult your department’s legal counsel to determine how the laws of your jurisdiction affect the application of this information to your individual department.

Sean T. Stewart is a Captain with the Pima County Sheriff’s Office and has over 20 years of experience. He currently serves as Corrections Captain Operations Division Commander for Pima County Sheriff’s Office. Captain Stewart is one of the Pima County Jails Litigation Specialists pertaining to Policy and Practice in Civil and Criminal Cases. 

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