Are you interested in looking up prison records for your ancestors? You don’t have the time or wherewithal to go to old prisons and archives in person to look up such records? That is perfectly okay. The good news is that there are plenty of places online where you can look up such records. You can also call, email, or write to any record repository that has prison records and ask them to do a search for you and send you copies. Sometimes these places will do it for a small fee, and sometimes they will do it for free.
With all of the resources that are available online, though, there is usually not a reason for you to travel to or contact places all over the country to obtain the prison records of your ancestors. In fact, there are several excellent websites online that specialize in compiling, storing, and indexing old prison records. If you are interested in finding these records on your ancestors, or even in finding out if any of your ancestors were ever in prison, these are the websites that you will want to explore.
Online Websites to Look Up Prison Records for Your Genealogy
Pacer — At PACER.gov, you can find records for all federal bankruptcy and appellate cases. This can be useful for looking up the case of an ancestor (or current relative) who has or had a criminal case on appeal with the US government. There is a fee to use the site and access records, but it’s worth it to find the information you need. Also, the fee is pretty nominal, and it is used to keep the site open for everyone to use. It’s a win-win for all the genealogists out there in the online world.
Old Bailey Online — Many people in America have ancestry going back to England. If you do and are interested in crimes your ancient ancestors may have committed and been imprisoned for in the Old Country, this is the site to go to. It’s located at OldBaileyOnline.org. This incredible database includes the records of nearly twenty thousand criminal trials that were held at the central criminal court of London (called the Old Bailey) between 1674 and 1913. It’s a free resource to use. You will find that the cases that came up before the Old Bailey include extremely petty crime and huge crimes, too. You will also find a variety of punishments and penalties doled out to those who were found guilty, from prison to fines to exile to Australia or the American colonies. In fact, you might be able to connect a criminal ancestor in England to their new life in America, bridging the gap between the two countries. Did that ancestor continue their criminal ways in the colonies, or were they reformed? It’s a fascinating thing to discover.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons — This website is maintained by the US Federal Government, and is free to use. It is located at www.bop.gov. It contains the records of inmates at federal prisons from 1982 to the present. This is a great website to use when looking up criminal or potential criminal records on more recent ancestors. Some of the ancestors you find there might even still be in this life today, or a currently living relative could perhaps have known them personally. It’s a great place to uncover recent family secrets or to find out more information about a person that you knew was in prison, but don’t have a lot of details on.
Our Criminal Ancestors — This free website, located at www.ourcriminalancestors.org, is an excellent resource for any genealogist researching criminals in the family tree. It largely ignores the notorious type of criminal cases and focuses instead on “garden variety,” everyday crimes. The website includes illustrated how-to guides, timelines, and case studies useful for anyone who is researching common, everyday crimes. It essentially shows you how to properly use criminal and prison records to trace a case, including the use of census records, newspaper records, and local court records to get the full picture of a criminal story. You will also find a treasure trove of information on things like the history of policing, physical punishments (like whipping or flogging), and justice for juveniles.
Cyndi’s List — This classic genealogy website goes back practically to the beginning of the internet. There is a section on it about prisons, prisoners, and outlaws. It is located at www.cyndislist.com/prisons/general. There, you will find an abundance of links to all kinds of mostly undiscovered gems of websites that discuss crime, prisons, and prisoners in America and around the globe. If you are looking for prison records for a certain place or time period or just looking for general information on tracing ancestors with prison records, this is an excellent, one-stop-shop of links for you to leisurely peruse.
FamilySearch.org — This famous free genealogical database has a section on prisons and prisoners. It is located at https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Prison_and_Jail_Records_(National_Institute). It is formatted in a wiki format, so the table of contents is at the top of the page and is clickable to the section that you want to use. It is an in-depth guide to looking for your incarcerated ancestors in the records, what records are available in what locations, what to do to access these records, and what you may find in the records when you locate them. It’s a great jumping-off point for doing prison record research “in the field,” and not online. Use it to put together your “real world” prison record research plan and guide. It will take you far, and will become a handy go-to for whenever you need to research this type of record. Whether you know you have ancestors who were incarcerated, or just want to look around to discover if you do, these resources will assist you in locating the information you need. Make use of them. Those black sheep ancestors deserve to have their stories uncovered and told to the world, too, blemishes and all. You know they would probably want it that way.