Historical U.S. Prison Records Online

Research Your Criminal Ancestors

Most of us can't claim notorious criminals such as John DillingerAl Capone, or Bonnie & Clyde in our family tree, but our ancestors may have been convicted and imprisoned for hundreds of lesser reasons just the same. State and federal penitentiaries and prisons, state archives, and other repositories have put a wealth of records and databases online that may put you hot on your ancestor's trail. These online indices often include extra details from descriptions of the offense, to the inmate's place and year of birth. Some of these online criminal sources also include mug shots, interviews, and other interesting criminal records.

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Alcatraz Inmate Lists

Interior of Alcatraz US federal penitentiary.
Getty / Paola Moschitto-Assenmacher / EyeEm

This free searchable database includes information on criminals imprisoned on Alcatraz Island off the coast of San Francisco, California. Many of the entries are annotated and there is also a list of famous prisoners such as Al Capone and Alvin Karpis. Elsewhere on the site you can explore historical background of Alcatraz, maps and floorplans of The Rock, official inmate statistics, convict biographies, historical document transcripts, and more.

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Anamosa State Penitentiary, Iowa

Was your ancestor a wanted criminal? Search criminal and prison records online.
Mugshot of a wanted newsboy. Getty / Nick Dolding

Search or browse historic stories and photos from the Anamosa State Penitentiary in Iowa, established in 1872. This unofficial history site only includes information on select historical inmates, and nothing on current inmates, but does provide a fascinating look at the history of this maximum security prison.

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Arizona Department of Corrections: Historical Prison Register

Search 100 years of prison admissions in this free searchable database of prisoners admitted to Arizona territorial and state prisons prior to 1972. Additional historical background on the prisons, plus a database of life imprisonment and death sentences from 1875–1966, is also available online.

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Executions at Fort Smith, Arkansas, 1873–1896

From 1873 through 1896, eighty-six men were executed on the gallows at Fort Smith, Arkansas, all convicted of rape and murder, which carried a mandatory federal death sentence during this time period. The National Park Service site for Fort Smith includes a timeline and biographies of the hangings.

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Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Inmate Case Files, 1902–1921

This free online index from the National Archives, Southeast Region, includes names and inmate numbers for prisoners held in the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta between 1902 and 1921. With this information you can request inmate files from the National Archives which may also include details on the prisoner's sentencing and incarceration, a fingerprint card, mug shot, physical description, citizenship, birthplace, level of education, birthplace of parents, and age at which the inmate left home. While the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta did not open until 1902, inmate case files may contain documentation from as early as 1880 for prisoners who were previously incarcerated by the federal government in other locations.

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Colorado State Penitentiary Prisoner Index, 1871–1973

Browse by name in this free alphabetical index to historical inmate records from the Colorado State Penitentiary. The index provides the prisoner name and inmate number which you can use to request the corrections record from the Colorado State Archives. Available information may include biographical details, as well as information about the prisoner's crime, sentence and parole or pardon. Prisoner mug shots are also available for most penitentiary inmates.

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Colorado State Reformatory Prison Records, 1887-1939

If you had a male ancestor in Colorado who got an early start on his criminal career, then you may find his name in this free online database from the Denver Public Library (now available online from Mocavo). The Colorado State Reformatory provided special programs for youthful male offenders, generally 16 to 25 years of age, who were convicted of crimes other than murder or voluntary manslaughter. The online index provides each prisoner's name, inmate number and prison record volume number. Complete inmate information is available from the Colorado State Archives.

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Connecticut - Wethersfield State Prison 1800-1903

The Weathersfield State Prison opened in 1827 with the transfer of eighty-one prisoners from Newgate Prison. This free online index to Warrants of Commitment, 1800-1903 includes information on inmates admitted to Wethersfield, as well as some who were transferred there from Newgate, including prisoner's name, aliases, residence, crime committed, victim (if known), sentence, court, and date of issue.

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Chicago Police Department Homicide Record Index, 1870-1930

This free searchable database chronicles 11,000+ homicides in the city of Chicago, Illinois, during the years 1870-1930 with case summaries describing the victim, the defendant, the circumstances of the homicide, the charges and the legal verdict. The website also chronicles 25 interesting Chicago homicide cases from start to finish.

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Indiana Digital Archives - Institution Records

This free searchable database from the Indiana State Archives includes includes names, dates and reference citations of individuals admitted to the Department of Correction Girl’s School 1873-1935, Prison North 1858-1966 and Prison South 1822-1897. Copies of the microfilmed admission books and commitment papers are available from the Indiana State Archives.

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Indiana Index to Life Prisoner's Statements: State Prison at Michigan City

Interviews conducted with inmates at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana during the early 1900s often name family members and others involved in the crime for which they were sentenced, and discussed whether or not attempts had been made to secure a parole or pardon. The statements also sometimes include follow up notes indicating the prisoner had died or was pardoned by the Governor, or in at least two cases the President. The free online index provides the information necessary to order copies of the statements, plus photographs of the inmates from the Indiana State Archives.

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Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, Inmate Case Files, 1895 - 1931

The National Archives, Capital Plains Region, in Kansas City, offers a free online name index to the Inmate Case Files of the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas from 1895 to 1931. With the name and inmate number from the online index you can request a copy of the inmate case file, most of which contain additional information on the inmate, plus a mug shot.

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Maryland Judiciary Case Search

Search statewide records of the Maryland Judiciary, including district and circuit courts, the appellate courts (appeals) and the orphans' court, both current and historical, going back as far as the 1940s. The amount of historical information varies by county based on "when an automated case management system was deployed in that county and how the system has evolved."

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Nevada State Prison Inmate Case Files, 1863-1972

Search the online name index to the Nevada State Prison Inmate case files for prisoner records dating from 1863 to 1972. Copies of the actual records can be ordered from the Nevada State Archives if the former inmate is deceased and at least 30 years have passed since the close of the file. Prisoner records that don't meet this criteria are confidential and restricted by state law.

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Inmates of the Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1831-1870

Two free online databases from the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) -- Inmates of the Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1831-1850 and Inmates of the Tennessee State Penitentiary, 1851-1870 -- include the prisoner name, age, crime and county. Additional information, including the prisoner's state of birth, the date received in the Penitentiary and the date of discharge is available up to 1870 from the TSLA via an email request. You will be notified of the cost to make a copy of the records once they are located.

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Utah State Archives Historical Name Indexes

A free searchable index to a variety of Utah historical records, including criminal case files for Salt Lake and Weber counties; Prisoner's Pardon Application Case Files, 1892-1949 from the Board of Pardons; and Criminal Requisitions Registers 1881-1949 and Pardons Granted Record Books 1880-1921 from the Secretary of State. The Board of Pardons database even includes digitized record copies.

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Walla Walla Penitentiary (Washington State), 1887-1922

Search extracts from the Record of Penitentiary Convicts of nearly 10,000 inmates housed in the Walla Walla State Penitentiary in Washington State from 1887-1922. Copies of the inmates’ files, available from the Washington State Archives, may include additional details such as parents' birthplace, children, religion, military service, marital status, photographs, physical description, education, names of nearest relatives, and court records. Indexes to early county Court Records of Washington Territory are also available online.

While having these prison and inmate databases available online is a great starting point, most of the records beg that you dig further—into correctional records, court records, jail logs, Governor's papers, records of the Secretary of State and/or Attorney General, etc. Historical newspaper accounts of the crime and conviction can also add substance to your family history.

Hundreds of thousands of other criminal records are also waiting to be discovered in state and university archives, county courts and other repositories. Your ancestor may not have been sent to San Quentin for murder, but you may be surprised to find a newspaper account of his being investigated for arson, or being arrested for a minor misdemeanor such as vagrancy, petty larceny, gambling or even making moonshine. Turn to genealogical and historical finding aids for repositories such as the State Archives, the Family History Library Catalog or the local county historical society to learn what might be available for researching your own criminal ancestors.

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Historical U.S. Prison Records Online." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/historical-us-prison-records-online-1422333. Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). Historical U.S. Prison Records Online. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/historical-us-prison-records-online-1422333 Powell, Kimberly. "Historical U.S. Prison Records Online." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/historical-us-prison-records-online-1422333 (accessed June 4, 2023).