What is an Inmate Record?
Inmate records are documents created when a court convicts an offender of an alleged crime and sentences the offender to spend time in a correctional facility. Generally, administrative staff at correctional facilities in charge of inmates create inmate records depending on jurisdiction — municipal, state, or federal facility — in the United States.
Are Inmate Records Public Information?
Yes. Inmate records are mostly publicly available per state public record laws and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While the information in inmate records differs with the jurisdiction, a typical inmate record contains the inmate's name, other personal information, location information, and confinement status. Inmate records also provide offense related information, such as:
- Degree of offense
- Admission Date
- Court Name
- Sentence status
- Custody classification
- Sentence type
- Inmate type
- Rewards for good behavior
- Demerits for bad behavior
Inmate records are considered public in the United States and therefore are made available by both traditional governmental agencies as well as third-party websites and organizations. Third-party websites may offer an easier search, as these services do not face geographical limitations. However, because third-party sites are not government-sponsored, the information obtained through them may vary from official channels. To find inmate records using third-party aggregate sites, requesting parties must provide:
- The location of the sought-after record, including state, county, and city where the inmate resides.
- The name of the person listed in the record, unless it is a juvenile.
How to Find an Inmate
Inmate records are available as physical copies that a requester can obtain in person or by submitting a mail request. And with advancements in record management, correctional facilities and service providers now maintain digital copies of inmate records online. Interested persons may visit the official website of the correctional facility or visit the websites of service providers that provide access to these public records.
Generally, public requesters can run a free inmate search by name containing basic information regarding an inmate — these are available online. However, requesters who wish to access detailed records or obtain physical copies of inmate records must pay a nominal service fee. To perform an online search for inmate records through local law enforcement or incarceration facility:
- Research where the inmate of interest is serving time. This can be done by obtaining the person's criminal records, court records or by using independent service providers.
- Determine if the facility or law enforcement agency maintains online inmate records. Suppose inmate records are available online. Then, use the inmate's name, age, or ID number to perform a free inmate search by name for available records.
- Suppose online inmate records are unavailable online. Follow the record custodian's instructions for obtaining inmate records in person or via mail.
How to Find a Federal Inmate
Federal inmates can be found using the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmate lookup and prison lookup tool provided the interested party has access to certain information about the inmate. Inmates kept in federally run incarceration facilities can be found in two different ways.
- The first way is to acquire the first and last name of the inmate. Knowing the inmate's middle name, birth date, ethnicity, and gender is also helpful in an inmate search.
- The second way to acquire the inmate number of the inmate is from the BOP Registry, the DC Department of Corrections, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the Immigration and Naturalization Services. The inmate number is a more specific way to find an inmate. Although several inmates may have the same name, no two inmates share the same number.
Knowledge of an inmate's full name is the minimum required information to locate a prisoner at a state level or lower. Additional information on incarceration facilities in a specific state may be found in the list above.
How to Find a Federal Inmate Record
Federal inmate records, also known as prison records, are available to the public through the National Archives and Records Administration for inmates incarcerated between 1870 and 1981. For inmate records after 1981, interested requesters must contact the Federal Bureau of Prisons and submit FOIA requests using the DOJ-361 form. The Bureau also maintains an online directory of federal inmate records.
How to Find an Inmate in a State Prison
Online databases of people who currently are — or those who shortly will be — confined at a correctional facility are common, if not ubiquitous. Every state has a Department of Corrections: the government agency that oversees state-level incarcerations and inmate records. These record custodians have inmate locators. As a rule of thumb, persons who wish to perform an inmate search for a state-run facility must have the following information:
- The inmate's first and last name
- The inmate's gender, race, and age range or birth date
- The last known institution where the inmate was held
Sites of this nature may have additional fees. Should an inmate prove difficult to find, third-party search engines may help refine or complete a search.
How to Find an Inmate in County Jail or City Jail
Online records are usually available through government websites or organizations that provide access to local inmate records to find a person in jail. Interested parties can navigate to these websites to view online directories or pay a small fee to perform an inmate lookup. Counties, cities, and municipal correctional facilities also have online inmate locators. These locators are usually operated through the county government, sheriff websites, city or local police department websites. Note that local, city, and county inmate locators operate independently. As such, search results for local inmate records may vary.
To perform an online search for inmate records through a local, city, or county law enforcement website or incarceration facility website;
- Research where the convicted or imprisoned person is kept. This can be done through criminal records or by using third-party record amalgamation websites.
- Determine if online inmate records are available for the law enforcement or incarceration facility in question. In the meantime, have the inmate's name, age, or inmate ID at hand.
- Follow the instructions provided by the website to gain access to the inmate record should it exist.
What's the Difference Between Jails and Prisons?
Each state has agencies that run state prisons. Other municipalities, such as counties, also run facilities. Likewise, townships, cities, and even smaller municipalities have a detention center, correctional facility, or partner with a neighboring municipality to operate a correctional facility. Today, there are over 3,000 detention facilities, 1,770 juvenile correctional facilities, and 80 Indian country jails in the United States.
What's the Difference Between a Detention Center and a Jail or Prison?
Detention centers commonly refer to any kind of facility that detains offenders. Though, in fact, detention centers are facilities where detainees are held while awaiting trial for an offense, deportation, non-criminal acts, mental health evaluations, and even civil hearings for involuntary mental hospital commitment. Thus, it is best to use the correct terms — jail or prisons — when searching for inmates convicted and incarcerated for a criminal offense.
How Do I Send Money to an Inmate?
Inmates can acquire money while incarcerated if someone outside the facility sends them legitimate funds. There are three ways to send money to an inmate, although individual incarceration facilities often have different rules and service providers. Suffice to say, the three ways to send money to an inmate include:
- MoneyGram — wires money electronically. This method requires knowledge of the inmate's register number, their name, and the address of the detention facility.
- Western Union — wires money electronically. This method requires knowledge of the inmate's ID number, full name, and a code city that is either "FBOP" or "DC."
- The United States Postal Service — delivers physical money orders to the detention facility. Sending funds this way requires cash to be converted to a money order (personal checks and cash are not accepted). Furthermore, the sender must know the inmate's full name and their registered identity number. All mail to federal prisoners, regardless of the detention center address, must be sent to:
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Inmates Register Number
P.O. Box 474701,
Des Moines, IA 50947-0001
Generally, knowing the inmate's location is important to send money. This is particularly important in cases where an inmate is held in a private detention facility, as these facilities operate outside usual federal rules. Most private facilities have additional rules on sending money, visiting, or other interactions with inmates. Intending senders must contact the prison administrative staff for systematic instructions on sending money to an inmate.
How to Find Out When an Inmate Will Be Released
Generally, an inmate's release date is a date when an inmate's sentence ends. On that day, the correctional facility shall stop maintaining custody, and the person joins free society. The inmate release date is typically determined following a court sentence or after a parole hearing. Interested persons may find inmate release date by performing an inmate record search and looking at the sentence information section. A phone call to the jail or prison administrative staff will also furnish the requester with this information. However, note that inmate release date is not always public information, especially if public knowledge of this date puts the inmate at a safety risk.
How to Visit an Inmate in State Prisons and Jails
Each prison has its own rules for visitation, including visitation hours, though each federal inmate gets a minimum of 4 hours of visitation per month. Local, county, and city prisons and jails often reward additional visitation hours, though results may vary depending on the jurisdiction.
State-run confinement facilities allow for visitation but typically have strict visitation rules. These include hours that vary with the facility, dress codes, banned items, personal status restrictions, and ID requirements. For these reasons, it is best to register on an inmate's visitation list and schedule a visit before going to the facility where the inmate is held. Note that people with outstanding warrants of arrest and individuals who are currently on probation or parole or on a form of conditional release are typically not allowed to visit state correctional facilities.
Corrections facilities at a local or county level have varying schedules and visitation rules. More information on specific states is available in the list above, but generally, visitation hours may be found through the government website of the jurisdiction where the prison is located.
Prior to visiting an inmate at an incarceration facility, be sure to gain approval through the facility and make sure to be added to the approved visitors' list. This process may take 3 to 4 weeks on average, though results may vary.
How to Visit an Inmate in Federal Prison
Locations and contact information for federal prisons are available online. According to the BOP, intending visitors must gain prior approval and review specific visitation rules for the facility of interest. Furthermore, the visitor must observe the facility's dress code, physical contact restrictions, and warden-dictated visitation rules. The visitor must also be one whom the inmate had included on the visitation list. Generally, persons allowed to visit federal inmates include:
- Immediate family members, including parents, guardians, siblings, spouses, and children
- Distant relatives, including grandparents, in-laws, cousins, and parents' siblings
- Friends or associates, foreign officials, clergy, civic group members, as well as past or potential employers, and sponsors
- Legal officials, associates, and law enforcement officers
What is a Private Prison?
Private prisons are for-profit companies contracted by state governments, though a significant number are also contracted from federal government bodies to construct and operate facilities where inmates serve time. These prisons operate similarly to public prisons but do not operate under the same structure as government-run facilities. Instead, the relationship between a private prison and government bodies is more akin to a contractor/client relationship.
Rules for visiting private prisons, finding an inmate at a private prison, or sending money to an inmate at a private prison are similar or identical to the methods recommended for public prisons. For any irregularities, it is recommended that interested parties visit the private prison's website for further instructions or methods.
Private prisons largely came to prominence in the 1980s after the initiation of the War on Drugs. The sudden influx of new prisoners resulted in prison overpopulation. Then, the federal government contracted private businesses to handle the sudden increase in inmate population, which reportedly put a strain on existing facilities. The top 10 private prison populations in states exist in the following states:
State (% of state prison population in private prisons)
- New Mexico (43%)
- Montana (39%)
- Tennessee (26%)
- Hawaii (25%)
- Arizona (19%)
- Colorado (18%)
- Mississippi (16%)
- Vermont (15%)
- Indiana (15%)
Suppose an inmate search proves unhelpful or if determining their incarceration facility through criminal records proves difficult. In that case, concerned searchers may use third-party amalgamation websites to simplify the search process.