Prison records and genealogy: it's probably not what you imagined when you first set out to find the story of your ancestors. But many of today's researchers find out that they have ancientors that served time in jails or prisons. The reasons vary – some had brief scrapes with the law due to debt or one poor decision. Others were conscientious objectors, victims of the times they lived in, or even hardened criminals. Whatever the reason that your ancestor served time, prison and penitentiary records can serve as another piece of the puzzle when assembling your ancestor's life story.
The history of prisons
Prisons and workhouses have a long history in Europe and the United Kingdom. Early American penal systems tended to focus on punishments such as fines, floggings, hangings, and other public punishment. Jails were used to house prisoners awaiting trial. Once their trials arrived, they were typically punished on the spot or released. The idea of modern prisons as we think of them today emerged in 1825 in Auburn, New York. Since then, a variety of prison-related changes and reforms have occurred.
The prison system
The prison system is organized according to jurisprudence. These include federal, state, county, and military. It's also worth noting that there is a classification of court known as marine court that related to shipping, but those decisions and punishments rarely led to prison. If you're looking for information about a specific prison, the American Correctional Association publishes the Directory: Juvenile and Adult Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies and Paroling Authorities. It's a helpful starting point.
Types of prison records
While record types vary by institutional type, state, and timeframe, there are a few common types of prison records that can be consulted:
Court documents: Court documents such as warrants, proceedings notes, and judgments against people are helpful to outline the charges, the trial, the decision, and the punishment if appropriate.
Records of prisoners: These are essentially logs that record prisoner names, age, race, residence, crimes, sentencing, and so forth. These records may also contain details of their release.
Biographical records : Some prisons maintained more detailed records of their prisoners and their lives. It may include physical information such as height and weight, family details, medical and mental health information, and religion. Others maintained details related to a prison's appearance, including distinctive marks such as tattoos or scars.
Clemency: States often keep records of the requests made to governors to pardon specific inmates, as well as logs of those who were actually pardoned (sometimes known as pardon books).
A few parting thoughts on genealogical prison records
Prison records are just one part of your ancestor's life. But if your ancestor served time, they can give you insights no other documents can. If the timeframe is within the last seven years, records may be protected by privacy laws. Family members may be able to obtain records under certain circumstances. There are a few sources of centralized records for prisons. Start by contacting the institution (if it's still open) or looking specifically for records at the county, state, or federal levels. A professional genealogist is a great resource for helping you understand prison records and genealogical research as it pertains to your unique family history.