How To Make A Tattoo In Prison

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Prison inmates take the motors out of electric typewriters and electric pencil sharpeners to help make tattoos, an inmate told a Massachusetts court.

John J. Sullivan made the statement while contesting his firing as a law clerk in the prison library at Massachusetts Correctional Institution – Shirley, where he is serving a life sentence for shooting to death a woman he was seeing and her father.

Sullivan lost his job in early November 2017 after the electric motor of a typewriter disappeared from the library. But Sullivan maintains that he didn’t take it and that he wasn’t even in the library at the time.

“These motors, by the way, are used to make tattoo guns, and I don’t have a single tattoo on my body,” Sullivan said during oral arguments before the Massachusetts Appeals Court on March 15, 2022, in a case decided this week.

Sullivan, who earned a college degree from Boston University earlier in his prison stint, filed the lawsuit on his own behalf and represented himself during oral arguments, which took place online.

He said prison officials offered no evidence that he took the motor.

“After I left that library, twice as many typewriters were vandalized, as the last five months before I left,” Sullivan said. “I was an efficient, I was a diligent, I was a security-conscious library clerk, and I never missed a day of work. While some others just don’t even bother coming into work and they get to retain their jobs.”

Sullivan also argued that a prison official defamed him when he asked her why he was fired, implying that he was a thief in the presence of other inmates and prison employees.

“Now my reputation should be intact. As far as I’m concerned, it is,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan eventually made it back to the law library, but he was not made whole, he said. During a lower court hearing, Sullivan said, a lawyer representing the state prison inaccurately stated that Sullivan was reinstated.

“I was never reinstated in the library. What happened was, I was rehired maybe a year, year and a half later, at entry level, and less pay. So, this has resulted in a lot of financial damage,” Sullivan said. “I know it probably doesn’t mean a lot to the court. We’re talking, I was paid seven dollars and fifty cents a week, as opposed to ten dollars a week. But over a year or so — I mean, that’s important money within the prison context. People are always of the impression that you can live for free in prison, and you can’t. The state does not pay for everything. I have an annuity of 124 dollars a month. That essentially takes care of my expenses. Now I realize that your honors probably might spend that amount of money for lunch. But to me that is important money.”

A lawyer for the Massachusetts Department of Correction argued that Sullivan isn’t entitled to his job at the prison library, and that prison officials have wide discretion over what jobs to give and not give to inmates and over how to run the prison.

The appeals court agreed on that point, but found that prison officials failed to follow their own rules when they fired Sullivan. The court overruled a lower court judge’s decision to toss the entire case, and sent it back to Superior Court to adjudicate Sullivan’s firing, while dismissing Sullivan’s other claims.

“We conclude that the plaintiff’s first grievance, challenging his termination, was improperly denied because the prison failed to follow its own regulatory procedures in investigating it, and that the error may have affected the result,” the Appeals Court decision states. “We further conclude that the plaintiff’s claim for defamation against a correction officer for implicitly calling him a thief in front of other correction officers and inmates was properly dismissed.  Although the plaintiff, a convicted murderer, is not defamation-proof against accusations of theft, the correction officer had a conditional privilege to explain hiring and firing decisions which was not lost by the fact that the statement was incidentally overheard by others.”

The Massachusetts Appeals Court is the state’s second highest court, below the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. It is usually the first appeals court for cases from Superior Court, which is a trial court. Sullivan is doing a life sentence on convictions of first degree murder and second degree murder.

Sullivan was reported as 44 in December 1993 by The Boston Globe, which would make him about 73 now.

Sullivan’s crimes occurred in Farmington, New Hampshire in 1986, when he was in his late 30s. He has made the rounds of prison systems since then. New Hampshire’s prison system sent him to Maine so he could be nearer his ailing mother. But after he wrote popular columns about prison life for a local newspaper – including criticisms of how the prison was run – Maine authorities transferred him back to New Hampshire in 1993.

In April 1995, New Hampshire sent him to Massachusetts – “For reasons that are not disclosed in this record,” as the Massachusetts Appeals Court put it in its decision.

He ended up at Shirley, a medium-security state prison, in August 2012. He got the job in the prison library there in 2015.

While working for the library in Shirley, Sullivan complained about understaffing, under-supervision, and the work schedule, noting that multiple jobs at the library went unfilled. Near the end of October 2017, shortly before Sullivan was fired, a deputy superintendent in charge of prison programming told him, according to the appeals court, that “she was unhappy with the quantity of his written inquiries.”

The case is John J. Sullivan vs. Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Institution – Shirley & Others. It was decided Monday, September 27, 2022.


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