In the United States, prisons, jails and other custodial facilities are operated at the county, state and federal level. This can make it difficult to find out where, exactly, an offender is incarcerated. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, virtually all prisons are owned and managed by the national government, which keeps a database of all prisoners who are, or have been, a "guest" of the public prison system. The 14 private U.K. prisons also feed into this database, so there is a one-stop-shop for anyone wishing to find out the location of an inmate.
Find a Prisoner Service
In most cases, a prisoner will be allocated to a prison in his local area. This is not always the case, however, and if the nearest prison is full or there are special circumstances surrounding the crime, an offender may be taken to a prison further away. To find out which prison someone is in, email the government's Find a Prisoner service at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to:
Prisoner Location Service
PO Box 17594
The letter or email must include:
- The full name of the prisoner, plus any former names, if known.
- The prisoner's date of birth.
- The applicant's name, address and date of birth.
- The name of the organization the applicant represents, if applicable.
- The reason why the search is being made; for instance, the prisoner is being sought by a family member.
Who Can Search for a Prisoner?
In theory, anyone can use the government's Find a Prisoner service, including family members, friends, legal representatives and charity workers – even the victim and the victim's family. However, data protection rules mean that the inmate must give her permission for the location to be shared. If a prisoner does not want anyone to know where she is incarcerated, she is entitled to keep this information private. The only exception is for organizations such as the police, the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service (Britain's public prosecution service) and the prisoner's lawyer.
The Direct Approach
As soon as a prisoner arrives in prison, he or she will be given a free reception letter. This allows the prisoner to write to someone free of charge and tell them where they are. The solicitor handling the case may also be prepared to disclose which prison the offender has been taken into if the prisoner has given permission to do so.
Contacting Someone in Prison
Once his location is known, it is possible to contact a prisoner by letter. In most circumstances, there is no limit to the number of letters that prisoners can receive, but understand that letters sent to inmates are opened, searched and checked by prison staff before being given to the prisoner, unless the letter is from the court or a legal advisor. The use of certain language and content may result in a letter being confiscated, namely:
- Obscene language.
- Naming victims.
- Content that is deemed a threat to discipline or security, for example, a coded letter or escape plans.
- Current legal matters, such as information relating to an impending trial.
Most prisoners are able to make telephone calls, but these are initiated by the prison; it is not usually possible to call and speak to an inmate from outside the prison. A staff member will speak to the recipient first to make sure they are willing to receive the call. Calls may be limited in length and, like visitation periods, are often restricted to certain times of the day. Ask the prison for details.
In emergencies, such as a death or serious illness in the family, call the main prison number and staff can pass on urgent and critical information.