How to Locate an Inmate

Federal crimes result in incarceration in federal prison. State law puts those sentenced to more than one year for felonies in state prisons. Those convicted of misdemeanors and sentenced to less than one year are generally held in city or county jails.

If someone close to you has gone to prison, keeping in touch can be challenging. Inmates are often transferred away from their original facility. Each prison sets slightly different rules about how and when you can contact its inmates.

This article provides information to help the general public locate and contact an inmate.

Steps to Locate an Inmate

Before the internet, locating an inmate could take weeks. You would often have to call different prisons across the country until you found your friend or relative.

These days, many federal and state prisons offer online tools using inmate information to help you find an inmate online. However, many inmates are held in county or municipal facilities. The ease of locating an incarcerated person in a county jail or local detention center varies by jurisdiction.

The federal inmate locator, part of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, allows you to search all the nation's federal prisons by entering an inmate's name. Their age, race, and sex can help to narrow down the results as needed.

Each state has its own inmate locator as well. These online services are often a part of the state's department of corrections. While there may be some differences, most of the state locators work in a very similar fashion to the federal inmate locator. For example, Maryland has an inmate locator that provides public information about the location of inmates.

Most of these search engines will tell you the name of the prison housing the inmate and relevant contact information, including the prison's phone number and the inmate's ID number. Once you find the inmate you're seeking, be sure to save their ID number. ID numbers, not inmate names, are how most prisons identify their inmates. You should include the inmate number in your correspondence to make sure your letters reach the correct person.

Steps to Make Contact With an Inmate

The easiest and most reliable way to contact an inmate while they are under community supervision or in prison has long been to mail letters. Prisoners regularly receive mail, which becomes a part of public records. They usually have access to pens, paper, and envelopes to send their own correspondence. Be sure to put the inmate's ID number on the outside of the envelope so that the letter doesn't get lost within the prison.

Some prisons require their inmates to open all mail in the presence of a guard to ensure the mail doesn't contain any drugs or weapons. In other prisons, the staff may even read the prisoners' mail. As a result, it's best to avoid including any sensitive information or details of their criminal record in your letters.

Meanwhile, a growing number of prisons have moved to scanning physical mail and only allowing inmates to read it in a digital format. Some have even tacked on charges for using the third-party services to which they have limited mail. Corrections officials typically cite drugs and other contraband. Advocates for reform say mail scanning takes away family photos and artwork, harming prisoners' mental health for private companies' benefit.

Check with the individual prison or county sheriff's office to find out facility-specific guidelines, including what you're allowed to send inmates. Generally, pornographic images are prohibited by corrections facilities, as are escape instructions and gambling materials like fantasy sports league literature. Some restrictions are surprising. For example, Texas prisons do not allow individuals to mail books to prisoners. Retailers must send the books.

Each prison's visiting and telephone policies are different. Some prisons allow in-person visits, while others only allow telephone contact, which is usually monitored. Sometimes, only attorneys can visit inmates. Look up the prison on the internet or call to find out its visitation policy.

Steps to Locate an Arrestee

If someone has been arrested but is not in jail, it may be more difficult to find them. Police stations and local courthouses often use county jails to house arrestees who are awaiting arraignment and bond and bail hearings.

Usually, finding out if someone was recently arrested requires a call to a law enforcement agency. This could be the local police department that made the arrest or the county sheriff's office.

Basic Information for Family Members Visiting Loved Ones in Custody

If you're visiting a loved one in jail, be sure to arrive at the facility early. The wait lists to visit inmates can be long, and early arrival may be the only way to ensure your day won't be wasted.

The screening process of the criminal justice system can be subject to several restrictions.

Call or verify by email that your loved one is available and that the visiting day you've chosen is valid. Some dates may be blacked out because of a holiday or another reason such as a lockdown.

Ask about security protocols and the inmate's custody status. Some facilities will not allow visitors with belts, metal jewelry or clothing, or electronic devices. Be prepared to leave your cellphone in your car, along with any metal objects and writing instruments.

Arriving unprepared for screening could shorten or prevent a visit with an inmate. Upon arrival, be sure to have:

  • Valid driver's license
  • Your loved one's inmate ID number
  • Valid registration for your car

Bring a cashier's check or money order if you want to "put money on the books" for your loved one. They'll need funds in their account to buy additional food and toiletry items at the jail commissary. Extra money for phone cards will help your loved one as well. As you may have already discovered, collect calls from jail can cost up to 50 times as much as a normal collect call.

If you must relay sensitive information about your loved one's case, you're best off giving the information or documents to their lawyer for their next attorney visit or interview.

Victim Identification Network

Survivors, victims of crime, and the general public can use a platform to obtain alerts on the custody status of inmates within correctional facilities. VINE — a name chosen to stand for Victim Information and Notification Everyday — provides victims with such information and more.

Get Legal Help to Locate an Inmate

If you have a loved one in custody for a criminal charge, you know how frustrating it can be to communicate with them. Your attorney can help you locate your loved one. Your lawyer can also find out important details such as release date, court date, and custody status. If your loved one is in jail or charged with a crime, consider contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation and receive legal advice.

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