City unveils gang tattoo removal program

City unveils gang tattoo removal program
San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, left, speaks with Dr. James Schultz of Neighborhood Healthcare last week in Escondido to unveil a gang tattoo removal program. Courtesy photo

ESCONDIDO — It took more than 10 years, but a new gang tattoo removal program was unveiled last week by the Escondido Gang Reduction Intervention Prevention (EGRIP) Taskforce.

In addition, EPD Chief Craig Carter, San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, Dr. James Schultz of Neighborhood Healthcare and Patricia Huerta, executive director Escondido Education COMPACT, celebrated the opening of the North County Tattoo Removal Program.

The program offers free tattoo removal to youths and young adults who have or want to leave the gang lifestyle, Horn said. Those who have left gang life, but still have ink on their face, neck and hands have difficulty finding jobs, according to EPD Lt. Ed Varso.

He said Horn used funds from the Neighborhood Reinvestment Funds to purchase a laser tattoo removal machine, which will be housed at Neighborhood Healthcare.

Varso said the program has been 13 years in the making and the only one in North County.

“I’ve been doing the gang task force since 1995,” Horn said. “There is a need there for those who want to get out of the gangs and remove the tattoos and get jobs.”

He said another goal is to secure another tattoo removal machine.

“This machine is really great,” Horn added. “It’s going to help these people remove the tattoos and get jobs. Nobody wants to hire them … especially for the girls, it’s important for them to get out of the lifestyle and that’s why we are doing this.”

Varso said the project came from EGRIP and is a collaborative task force including community groups, schools and others.

One goal early on was creating a free tattoo removal program.

“A lot of it was looked upon, essentially, giving former gang members a second chance and move on with their lives,” Varso said. “It’s very common for those tattoos to be in very visible places.”

Naturally, a big obstacle once former gang members leave the life is the visible reminder inked on their bodies. As such, being hired for any job is very low.

Typically, the cost to remove a tattoo can run up to $5,000, which adds to the problem.

“It took time to find a funding source,” Varso said. “Back 13 years ago … there wasn’t anything like it in the county. Now, there is something in San Diego design for those on parole or probation. They feel like they get treated differently even though they are not involved in that lifestyle anymore.”

Huerta, who is the co-chair for EGRIP, said the EEC will assume the day-to-day responsibilities of the program. In addition, the EEC is funded through CalGrip through the board of state community corrections.

Initially, the program was set to be in Vista, but the city’s state funding fell through, so EGRIP, Horn and others came in to get the program into Escondido, Huerta said.

“Supervisor Horn actually stepped up at the North County Comprehensive Gang Task Force and said if we can get all the pieces together, he would buy the machine,” she explained.

Horn secured about $106,000 from the Neighborhood Reinvestment fund to purchase the tattoo removal machine.

Huerta said her group will get the referrals, screen candidates and make sure the tattoos are gang related and visible. In addition, she said other screening parameters include the former gang members have not been arrested or had police contact in the past three years.

“We’re really trying to help them to get to the point of being successful,” Huerta said. “If that means they don’t have a high school diploma, that we’ll work with them to get a GED. If they need to be gainfully employed, which is the ultimate goal of the program, we will help them with that.”

Once former gang members meet those, and other, requirements, Dr. Schultz will conduct the tattoo removal.

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