How to Find Prison Records

By Erika Sanders
Prison records are public, but may not be easy to locate.

Jodie Coston/Photodisc/Getty Images

Prison records are public documents, but that does not mean they are always easy to locate. Many county and state agencies have not yet made inmate records available free online, making access to them more of a research project. While you can look up an inmate's current location via the Federal Bureau of Prisons website or through a specific prison's website, those searches typically only confirm an inmate's presence at a certain facility. To find full prison records, you may need to be in contact with the court where the person was sentenced and you may have to pay a fee to obtain copies of the record.

Obtain the person's full name, and if possible, prison ID number. A full name, including middle name or middle initial, is helpful in determining that you have located the right individual. A date of birth will further guarantee that any records you find are for the right person.

Use CriminalSearches.com to look up the inmate. This database will list crimes for which a person has been convicted, but does not provide detailed records. However, it does provide you a case number, which can be helpful in tracking down more detailed documents.

Find the state and/or county in which the person was sentenced. If you do not readily know this information, you may have to first try an Internet search for newspaper articles or other media, which may have reported on the location of the crime.

Contact the appropriate court or county agency to determine how prison records are accessed in that jurisdiction. Some agencies now post records for free online, but many will still require you to pay a fee and request hard copy records. Requesting hard copies can take time to process.

Ask again if you are denied information. Remember, prison records are public documents. You have a right to this information. Patience may be required on your part, but if you locate the court or agency that holds the records, you should be able to access them. You can also make a request for federal prison records using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Submit your request in writing to the Department of Justice agency you feel may have the records you seek.

About the Author

Erika Sanders has been writing since 1997. She teaches writing at the Washington State Reformatory and edits the monthly newsletter for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, a national nonprofit organization. She received her Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the Solstice Program at Pine Manor College in Boston.

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