June 27, 2002
Q: My great-grandfather spent two years in a federal penitentiary for making moonshine in the mountains of Tennessee. How would I go about finding the records for that? -- Linda
Finding the Right Prison
Before you begin your search for the records, it is a good idea to determine where and when your great-grandfather was arrested. You mention Tennessee, but you will want to narrow that down even further.
There are different types of prisons found under the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They include US Penitentiaries (those we have come to know as federal penitentiaries), Federal Correctional Institutions, and Metropolitan Correctional Centers.
There are a limited number of US Penitentiaries, and they can be found in the following cities:
Alcatraz is another prison that was considered a United States Penitentiary. It opened in 1933 as a prison, though the United States Army had used the island from 1850 until 1933.
First, you will want to verify that your great-grandfather was indeed sent to a federal penitentiary. This can be done by reading newspapers for the time in question. Such an arrest and trial was bound to make the papers of the time, and may give you the exact prison where he was incarcerated and for how long.
While the Federal Bureau of Prisons offers a database of inmates incarcerated since 1982, those researching ancestors who were put in federal prisons will need to look elsewhere for the records. In addition to contacting the Bureau of Prisons it may be necessary to look elsewhere, including the National Archives and its branches.
When contacting the Bureau of Prisons about a prisoner who was released before 1982, you will want to write to the following address:
Office of Communications and Archives
You can also e-mail them.
Be sure to include as much information as possible so that they can identify the individual in question. They would like
As you can see, the more you can supply the better your chances they will find records on your ancestor. If you discover that your great-grandfather was not actually sent to a federal prison, you'll want to turn to the state correctional facilities.
Because your great-grandfather was in Tennessee, you may want to start with the Tennessee Department of Correction.
Prison records do exist, though finding sometimes requires creativity and perseverance by the researcher. By exhausting all the records about the crime in question, you will have a much better chance of knowing where to turn for the prison records. In the end it may require that you visit a repository in person or hire a professional genealogist.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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