Whether you are looking for a recently incarcerated prisoner or you need to access archived prison records to solve some of the mysteries in your family tree, the Internet is a great resource for finding this information. The process varies, depending on the age of the records, the status of the prisoner, and the state where the prison is located.
How to Find Records for Prison Inmates
Recent Federal Prison Records
If you are looking for records regarding a prisoner who was incarcerated after 1982, the Federal Bureau of Prisons maintains a helpful database. It's important to note that the prisoners in the database are federal prisoners only. If the individual was not convicted of breaking a federal law, he may not be in this database. Instead, that person may be in a state or local records system.
The process of searching these records is easy:
- Gather as much information as you can about the prisoner. Ideally, you'll know the first and last name, age, sex, and race. You'll get better results if you know the prisoner number associated with the individual.
- Go to the Inmate Locator tool at the Federal Bureau of Prisons website. If you know the prisoner number, select "Find by Number." If you don't know the number, select "Find by Name."
- Enter the information you have about the individual. Click "Search."
Older Federal Prison Records
The National Archives maintains some additional records from federal prisons dating from before 1982. Many records date back to the 1890s. Unfortunately, these records are not available online. Here's how to access them:
- Take a look at the list of available Prison Records at the National Archives. These include index records for Alcatraz as well as other location-specific records and general records.
- Click on the index that you need. In many cases, there is an alphabetical list or a date-sorted list. At the top of the index, you will see instructions for accessing the file at the appropriate National Archives branch.
- In some cases, you can order copies of the records online through the National Archives. In others, you will need to plan a visit to the branch.
Recent State and Local Prison Records
Each location has its own regulations about how prison records are stored and accessed. In many cases, you can conduct a search online. Each state has a different site for searching for recent prison inmate records:
Although the process is different for each state, you'll need to follow these basic steps:
- Find the Department of Corrections website for the appropriate state.
- Gather as much information as you have about the individual, including inmate number, full name, and date of birth.
- Enter the information and search for the prisoner.
Older State and Local Prison Records
You can find older state and local prison records by contacting the appropriate state archives. However, there are a few sites that allow you to access these records from home or offer tips on conducting this type of research:
- Black Sheep Ancestors is a fantastic free site with records for every state. You can also find some records for Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries. Some of the US records date back to the 1700s.
- Cyndi's List has an extensive listing of databases and helpful articles for researching ancestors who may have been in prison. You can also find contact information for many resources that have not yet digitized their records.
- Ancestor Hunt offers a list of accessible genealogical records for prisoners, some of which date back to the Civil War. There are extensive listings for each state as well.
The process is similar to any genealogy search you would typically conduct. Gather as much information as you can and then use that to search for more details about your ancestors.
Learn About the Circumstances
The Internet is a powerful tool for researching prison records. You can find information about both current inmates or your ancestors that may have been in prison. Either way, you can learn more about the circumstances behind the simple facts of the situation.