Prisons and Penitentiary Records

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Institution and Organization Records

This article is part of a series.
Almshouse Records
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Prisons and Penitentiary Records
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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


Prisons, as they currently exist, first appeared approximately two hundred years ago. The first modern prison is believed to have been the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, which was established in 1790. It was fashioned after the workhouses of London and other European cities.

Penologists saw a need for more sophisticated correctional institutions and designed what was considered a model prison at Auburn, New York, in 1825. It was followed by Eastern State Penitentiary at Cherry Hill in Philadelphia in 1829. Thousands of prisons, reformatories, correctional institutions, and related penal groups have been established since.

The early criminal judicial system was likely to convict offenders for violations less serious than those of modern offenders. Probation was instituted in the United States at about the same time the prison at Auburn, New York, was established. The purpose of probation was the same then as it is now: to provide supervision for first-time offenders who committed lesser crimes and to avoid imprisoning juveniles.

Information included on prison records is extensive, so researchers may consider themselves lucky to be able to use this group of sources. The records may offer some or all of the following facts about the prisoner's personal and criminal history:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Birth date
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Complexion
  • Eye color
  • Hair color
  • Nationality
  • Occupation
  • Religion
  • Grade of Education
  • Habits (alcohol use)
  • Relations (parents living)
  • Father's place of birth
  • Mother's place of birth
  • Conjugal/children
  • Date incarcerated
  • Register number
  • Court where charged
  • Recommitments
  • How and when discharged


Early prisons were operated, as they are today, by federal, state, local, and military authorities. The correctional institutions of all four jurisdictions are listed in the Directory: Juvenile and Adult Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies and Paroling Authorities, a publication of the American Correctional Association.<rep>Directory: Juvenile and Adult Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies and Paroling Authorities (Laurel, Md.: American Correctional Association, 1995).</rep> This directory includes an organizational description of each institution.

Each jurisdiction has its own prison system. Each state maintains its own correctional facilities, as do most counties. On the federal level, the Federal Bureau of Prisons oversees the institutions that hold those who have committed federal crimes. The most famous of these may be the prison at Alcatraz, which opened as a prison in 1933 and closed in 1963. Alcatraz Prison records, 1934'1963, are online. Alphonse "Scarface" Capone is prisoner number 85.

Current United States penitentiaries, commonly called federal prisons, are located at

  • Atlanta, Georgia, established 1902
  • Florence, Colorado, established 1994
  • Leavenworth, Kansas, established 1906
  • Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, established 1932
  • Lompoc, California, established 1959
  • Marion, Illinois, established 1963
  • Terre Haute, Indiana, established 1940
  • White Deer, Pennsylvania, established 1993

An index to prisoners incarcerated in federal facilities since 1982 is available online. For information on earlier prisoners, write to the following address, with as much information about both the criminal and the crime as possible:

Office of Communications and Archives
Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street, NW
Washington, DC 20534

Types of Records

From the Register of Prisoners, 1889'1901, Pennsylvania Industrial Reformary, p. 1. FHL microfilm 1,032,656, item 3.
From the Biographical Register, Pennsylvania Industrial Reformatory, no. 670. FHL microfilm 1,032,655, item 1.

Unfortunately, there is no complete inventory of the records maintained by each of the early correctional institutions in the United States. The types of records compiled by early Pennsylvania correctional institutions are representative of those found in other states for the same time period and include admission and discharge books, biographical registers, hospital record books, descriptive registers, convict dockets, reception descriptive books, registers of prisoners, death warrants, clemency files, pardon books, and lists of executions. Admission and Discharge Books contain the name of the inmate, date of admission, race, sex, health, habits (temperance), marital status, immunizations, family diseases, number of convictions, length of sentence, time in county jail, birthplace, occupation, physical and mental health at release, time in prison, and pardon information.

Registers of Prisoners are similar to admission books and list the name of the prisoner, age, race, birthplace, number of convictions, county of residence, court of sentencing, date of sentencing, crime, maximum sentence, and remarks (usually about release). The attached image is a page from the Register of Prisoners, 1899 to 1901, of the Pennsylvania Industrial Reformatory.

Biographical Registers contain data about the inmate and the inmate's family, which offers valuable facts for genealogical research. The Biographical Register of the Pennsylvania Industrial Reformatory is a good example of the valuable information found in these registers. The information is divided into data about the inmate and data about the inmate's family (see the attached image).

Inmate Family
Name Insanity
Date of record Epilepsy
Crime Dissipation
Maximum sentence Education
Family Pecuniary condition
Schools Occupations
Labor Pauper or criminal
Religion Religion
Physical stature
Mental capabilities
Moral susceptibility
Addresses of correspondents

The register in the attached image gives more details than called for by the form. Joseph Larkey's parents are not named in it, but the dates and causes of their deaths are noted. His living relatives were two uncles, Michael and Charles Haggerty of Philadelphia. His grandparents were not identified by name but were listed as deceased. Other records list the names of parents, grandparents, and other relatives in the space for addresses of correspondents. All of this information is, of course, helpful to genealogists.

Prison Hospital Record Books may offer detailed information about the inmate's medical treatment while imprisoned, hospital record books may include a specific date and cause of death. They may contain statistical accounts of the types of illnesses treated and the frequency of treatment.

Descriptive Registers are similar to registers of prisoners, giving the date of entry, name, age, birthplace, occupation, complexion, color of eyes, color of hair, stature, physical marks, sentence, when sentenced, number of convictions, when and how discharged, expiration of sentence, and remarks.

Convict Dockets include some of the information sometimes found in other records, including name of inmate, crime, sentence, when sentenced, court of sentencing, name of prosecutor, date admitted, physical description, when discharged, and how. This list is part of the 'A' page from the index to the 1826 Convict Docket of Western Pennsylvania State Penitentiary.

Reception Descriptive Lists of Convicts are an expanded form of early prison registers, and contain detailed information about the prison inmate. The information listed in these records includes the convict's name, age, race, crime, date of reception, date of sentence, county of conviction, occupation before and at the time of arrest, physical description, shoe size, weight, birthplace, education, occupational training, marital status, parental relations at fifteen, drinking habits, relatives in prison, cause of crime, and relative's residence.

Death Warrants consist of the actual warrant and all the supporting documentation of the conviction, and contain information of greater historical than genealogical value. The disposition of appeals for clemency and commutation are often included in the file.

Clemency Files contain requests to the governor for clemency in the sentence of a convict. A narrative in these files explains the circumstances involved in the commission of the crime, the reasons for clemency, and attestations to the character of the convict. The petition was signed by individuals who supported the granting of clemency.

Pardon Books attest to pardons granted to convicts by the state governor and contain little genealogical information. They do include references to the place of conviction and the court of sentencing.

Lists of Executions include some descriptive information about convicts, including date and time of execution, name, age, weight, and color. In addition, the name of the victim(s) and the arresting sheriff's name will appear.

Military Prisons often have information on POWs who were buried at a cemetery near the hospital or prison camp where they died. The bodies of others were returned to their home area. The cemeteries near Civil War prisons usually have a Union area and another area for the Confederate men. Many national cemeteries have burials from across the country.

The National Archives has microfilmed several sets of records on Civil War prisons that include lists of prisoners, including those at Columbia and Florence, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina.<ref>Lonnie R. Speer, Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, Penn.: Stackpole Books, 1997), 385'86.</ref> Many of the records indicate the company, regiment, and date of death. Names of soldiers held at the Union Army Prison at Alton, Illinois, appear online. Listings include rank, company, state, date and place of capture, date and cause of death, and place of burial.

Use of Prison Records

The value of prison records is greater than simply completing the story of an ancestor's life. Most of the time the prison records name other family members and open new research avenues.

For instance, the biographical register shown in the Register of Prisoners image above contains at least five leads to follow:

  1. Joseph Larkey was born in Philadelphia on 6 December 1866. The 1866 city directory should list all of the Larkey families in that city during the year of his birth, possibly giving clues to parents, grandparents, and other relatives with the same surname.
  2. Joseph's father was a hotelkeeper who died fourteen years before his son's incarceration (1877). The city directory of Philadelphia should be searched specifically for a hotelkeeper who is also named Larkey. Later directories should list his widow.
  3. Joseph Larkey named Michael and Charles Haggerty as uncles. They are probably maternal uncles, so his mother's family should be sought among the Haggerty families of Philadelphia.
  4. Information gained from city directories should lead to a search of the 1870 census for a Larkey family living in Philadelphia, with both parents having been born in Ireland and the head of the household employed as a hotelkeeper.
  5. Records of the Catholic church closest to Callowhill and 3rd Street in Philadelphia, where Joseph's father worked, should be examined to see if the family was in the nearest parish.

Researchers should remember that in most cases modern prison records created in the last seventy-two years may fall under the jurisdiction of privacy laws and cannot be released. Family members may obtain the records of deceased convicts and ex-convicts under some circumstances, but you should inquire about those conditions at the prison or correctional agency by letter or telephone.

Availability of Records

Locating prison records requires some searching. Determining the name of the prison from other sources, such as newspaper articles, is very helpful. If you know the place or state of imprisonment, write to the prison itself or to the state department of corrections at the address given in the list previous in this chapter; request photocopies of the records available or their location, if they are no longer maintained by the prison authorities. Requests should list the specific record desiredthe entries from the biographical register, the reception descriptive list, and the clemency file,' for example'to insure receiving records of maximum genealogical value.

Determine if the records are currently held by an archival facility, whether public or private. Also determine if the records have been microfilmed and by whom. The records of Pennsylvania prisons, for example, have been microfilmed by the [Genealogical Society of Utah], but the actual records are still on file at the prison or at the state archives. Some genealogical societies have indexed extensive records in their county, including prison or jail registers. The printed index may include minimal information, such as name of detainee and the date that he registered at the jail; however, further investigation may reveal the original ledger book or records. One example is Herb Bumgarner's Jail Register Index, Clackamas County, Oregon, From 1892 to 1925 Except For Years 1903 thru 1906.

The list of records available on the Internet is large and growing almost daily. Some of the sources follow:



See Also