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Overheard on the Message Boards: Penitentiary Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 27, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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

A: Prison records fall under the category of institutional records. Also included in this category are school, hospital, coroner, and orphanage records. These records have existed for more than 150 years in some form, giving a glimpse back much further than other records routinely relied on by researchers.

These records are seldom sought out because they are often more difficult to locate and seldom indexed. Unlike many of the record types that researchers rely on, prison records are seldom available on microfilm.

Finding the penitentiary may require some sleuthing.

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:

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

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.

Getting Records

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
Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street, NW
Washington, DC 20534

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

  • Name (including middle name or initial if known)
  • Known aliases
  • Date of birth
  • Race
  • Crime
  • Approximate dates in prison
  • Name of prison

State Alternatives

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.

In Conclusion

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.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning 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

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