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Inmate Search: How to Locate a State or Federal Inmate

Once a criminal defendant has been found guilty and sentenced to a term of incarceration, they effectively become the property of either the Federal Bureau of Prisons or their state's department of corrections. Once incarcerated, their ability to control their housing location and communication with the outside world is severely curtailed. This article strives to assist family members, friends, and attorneys of state and federal prisoners in locating their incarcerated loved ones and clients through the means of inmate search tools.

What is the Difference Between a State and Federal Inmate?

The United States is divided into a number of law enforcement jurisdictions. For the most part, states govern crimes committed within their borders, although the federal government can also prosecute crimes committed in any state, as long as the crime violates federal law. Due to this duplicity, a resident of any state in the nation (or U.S. territory) can be charged with either a state or federal crime.

The difference between a state and federal inmate lies in the crime that was committed and which law enforcement agency is investigating and prosecuting the case. For example, stealing beer from a local grocery store would most likely be a state crime, while robbing a federal credit union is most likely a federal crime. There are also several crimes that violate both state and federal law. For example, criminal defendants charged with possession or production of child pornography are technically violating both state and federal criminal statutes. As such, they could be charged either in state court (which provides for sentences measured in months or years for this conduct) or federal court (which provides for sentences measured in years and decades for this type of conduct.).

How Can You Locate a Prisoner?

Locating a state or federal prisoner is not like locating someone outside of prison. There is no 411 to call, telephone book to search through, online inmate yellow pages, or an app to help in the location process. Instead, there are online inmate locators; search tools which help those outside of prison locate those in prison. These inmate locators consist of web pages where the user can input the inmate's first name, last name, and/or registration number and receive certain information.

Some inmate locators merely provide the inmate's name, the prison where they are incarcerated, and their projected release date. Other inmate locators also include age, date of birth, crime of conviction, criminal history, and even their institutional disciplinary history. Each state, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons for that matter, provides different responsive, digital records.

If the prison system lacks such a prisoner search tool, prisoners' families and friends can always call the headquarters for the prison in question. The website for the prison system can be located through a Google or Yahoo search, and the phone number should be readily available there.

Who Operates these Inmate Locator Services?

Categorically, these inmate locator tools are operated by each individual prison system. This is exclusively the case because it is the state or federal prison system in question that possesses, and has access to, the database that contains the personal and location information of the inmates incarcerated within their respective prison systems. While not all states have an online inmate locator search tool, most do, and many county detention centers and jails do, too.

What About the Many Private Prisoner Search Websites?

A simple Google or Yahoo search will indicate that there are thousands of website that offer information about state and federal prisons and those incarcerated therein. Some might even be so bold as to suggest that they themselves have their own inmate search tools. Such claims are usually dubious. At best, these private prisoner search websites have links to the state and federal inmate locators, where the user can then search for the inmate in question.

The problem with these websites is that by and large, they are focused on selling advertising, services, or products. They are based on commerce, not information. In order to fulfill their mission, they tend to spread out their information as much as possible to keep users clicking on new pages (and, thus, rendering more ads or product placements). Often, prisoner's families and friends land at such a site, start looking for the information in question, become frustrated when they can't find it, and give up in their search.

As for information about prisons themselves, most of the private websites that provide this information don't bother to keep it up-to-date. Instead, they post each prison's location and other general data, and then allow it to stagnate, where it eventually becomes outdated and useless.

Is There A List of All of the Government Inmate Locator Tools?

While there are many websites that purport to offer this type of information, many fall flat in their promise. But there are two entities that seem to do a good job. Prison Education News ( ) and Prison Legal News ( ) both provide a very handy tool that presents links to each state's prison system's inmate locator tool. And this information is all contained on a single page, which makes them a breeze to use. These are probably the best tools around.

What If I Still Can't Locate the Inmate I'm Searching For?

If a family member, friend, or attorney of an inmate still can't find the location information they seek, they are advised to follow the above advice and call the central office or headquarters for the prison system in question. They should be able to provide the necessary information. If this doesn't work, the guys at Prison Legal News and Prison Education News should be willing to help.

By Christopher Zoukis

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