Genealogy Research in Federal Prison Records

One of the classes I attended at FGS was “Federal Prison Records: Atlanta, Leavenworth, Alcatraz, and McNeil.”  The course was presented by Maureen Hill, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at Atlanta.

I have a couple of people in my family tree that spent several years in federal prison in the 1890’s.  Although they were both incarcerated in Ohio, not in one of the prisons named in the session title, I was hopeful that I would learn some tips to help me find their records.  While I didn’t get the tips I had hoped for, I did learn some interesting things that may be helpful to you.

I’ve learned through searching the NARA website that Atlanta, Leavenworth, Alcatraz, and McNeil Island are the only federal prisons whose records are held by NARA.  The Bureau of Prisons maintains all other federal prison records.  However, if you have someone in one of these four prisons, you can find some amazing genealogical information.

Federal prison records are Record Group 29, which includes a wide variety of records.  Those that will be of most interest to genealogists are the inmate case files, warden notebooks, daily journals, and inmate registers.  Inmate case files may include mug shots, prisoner’s agreements, progress reports, correspondence records, visitors, conduct, etc.  Warden notebooks could include summary information about the inmate and mug shots.  Inmate registers would include the date of arrival, date of discharge, and circumstances of release.

An important point to note regarding inmate case files is that they are kept at the last prison where the person was incarcerated.

Each of the four prisons has an every-name index online (records are restricted to those who entered the prison at least 72 years ago or were born 100 years ago).  With the inmate number, you can order the file.  Since I find the NARA website completely impossible to navigate, I’ve included the urls for each prison’s records below.

Alcatraz Island:

http://www.archives.gov/pacific/archives/san-francisco/finding-aids/alcatraz-alpha.html

Atlanta Federal Penitentiary:

http://www.archives.gov/southeast/finding-aids/atlanta-penitentiary

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary:

http://www.archives.gov/central-plains/kansas-city/finding-aids/leavenworth-penitentiary

McNeil Island

http://www.archives.gov/pacific-alaska/seattle

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  1. Tonia Kendrick says

    Hi Roland, I don’t know. NARA has Atlanta records from 1902 to 1921. You might try the Bureau of Prisons. Good luck!

    • Tonia Kendrick says

      You’re welcome, Mariann! This was a fascinating session; it’s amazing the amount of information that can be found in the prison records, should you need to look.

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