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Overheard in GenForum: Prison Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 24, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: How do I find the prison records of a person in the Illinois Federal penitentiary in 1933 and in the New Mexico state penitentiary in 1960s? What do I have to have to get them? -- Linda

A: Prison records fall under the category of institutional records. Also included in this category are school, hospital, coroner, and orphanage records. These records have existed for more than 150 years in some form, giving a glimpse back much further than other records routinely relied on by researchers.

Institutional records are overlooked by most researchers, primarily because it is sometimes harder to gain access to the records. They are seldom indexed, microfilmed or organized as we have come to expect other records upon which we rely. They can contain such valuable genealogical information, though, that we should keep them at the top of our record priority list.

Institutional records may be a gold mine.

Prison Records

Prisons as we know them today have been in existence for more than 200 years. The first prison was the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia which opened in 1790. This was soon followed by the Auburn Jail at Auburn, New York, which opened in 1816. Most of the prisons today are modeled after that of the Auburn Jail.

Prisons fall under one of four authorities: federal, state, local, and military. The difference in the authority may affect the records you have access to. All prisons are listed in the Directory, Juvenile and Adult Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies and Paroling Authorities published by the American Correctional Association. Most public libraries will have a copy of this directory, which numbers more than 850 pages.

There are different records generated by the prisons and they may differ by prison, authority or time period. Many of the records will include some identifying information and a few will give you some information about the inmate's family.

Some of the records to keep a look out for include

  • Admission Books
  • Register of Prisoners
  • Biographical Registers
  • Hospital Record Books
  • Descriptive Records
  • Convict Dockets
  • Clemency Files
  • Pardon Books
  • Discharge Books

Finding Records on Inmates

In addition to locating the prisons, there may be other places where you might find the records, especially of those prisons that are no longer in operation. Finding these records may also depend on the type of prison and when the inmate was incarcerated.

State correctional institutions are taking some information and putting it online. Some of them have searchable databases of inmates. Most of these databases though tend to be of recent inmates, and may not be of use in researching ancestors. Some of the correctional institutions list the years covered by their online database, others don't.

A few records have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library. Original records may be found in the state archives, repository for many different records. You may want to see if the state archives has made an online searchable catalog, allowing you to run a search for record availability.

New Mexico and Illinois

In regard to the New Mexico state penitentiary, you will want to investigate the Inventory of the New Mexico Department of Corrections Records, 1884-[ongoing]. The information posted on this Web page is an overview of the records that are available. You will find they are available through the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Archives and Historical Services Division. While the records are not available online, this gives you contact information and a chance to see what records are available.

Because you mentioned that in Illinois the individual in question was in a federal penitentiary, your first stop should be the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They have an online inmate search, but at the present it covers the years 1982 to the present. For information about those inmates who served their incarceration before 1982, you will want to write to

Office of Communications and Archives
Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street, NW
Washington, DC 20534
Attn: Historic Inmate Locator Request

There is also an e-mail option on the Bureau of Prisons Web site that you can use to make such a request.

When writing to the Bureau of Prisons, you need to give them as much of the following information as possible: name (middle name or initial if known), aliases, date of birth, race, crime, approximate dates in prison, and the name of the prison. If you don't have all of this information, it may still be possible for them to locate information.

In Conclusion

Prison records, like other institutional records, are a gold mine of information. Unfortunately they are not a well-known resource and therefore seldom are they indexed or microfilmed, so getting them has added difficulties. However, many times the results make the effort worthwhile.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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