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Guide to a Successful Inmate Search

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Inmate Defined

An inmate is an individual held in a state or a state-owned institution. Such institutions include prisons, correctional institutions for minors, detention centers for prisoners of war, and psychiatric hospitals for the mentally challenged. In almost all cases, these inmates are not in these institutions of their own free will; there is a degree of force involved.

Why carry out an Inmate Search?

There are many reasons why someone would want to search for an incarcerated inmate. An inmate could have been left an inheritance by a relative and there's need to inform him/her but no-one knows in which institution they are being held. It could also be that a close relative of the inmate (child, father, wife, or brother) has passed on and other relatives feel that the inmate should be informed.

Guideline to Follow

Searching for inmates starts from different positions. Some know the particular country in which the facility holding the inmate is located in which case the task is easiest. Sometimes they only know the State in which case the issue is one of narrowing it down to the Country. The third scenario poses the greatest problem. The searcher has no idea in which of the State of Province of the whole country the holding facility is located.

  • There are different categories of databases in which the inmate search could be made. The trick is to know which one to search in, otherwise it will be a waste of time and effort.  A more sensible approach would be to find out the reason for which the inmate was incarcerated. For example, was the inmate a psychiatric patient who was held in a hospital facility? Or was the inmate convicted of a serious felony such as murder, rape, or robbery and given a long sentence or a misdemeanor like a violation of immigration laws.
  • The next step in the United States is to determine the holding facility designation. Is it a Federal facility, a Country facility, or a state facility? If this is known, then search in the appropriate database. A website for inmates of federal facilities will not contain inmates of country facilities and vice versa.
  • In case the particular type of holding facility is not known, then the task becomes cumbersome. Then it is required to search the databases of all three (Federal, State, and Country). If it is found out that the inmate is held in a Federal facility, then the next question arises, what class of facility? If it is known that the inmate is incarcerated for a serious felony like murder, then search in the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) database. The FBI has records of arrests made, details of court cases, and various dates.
  • Make use of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) inmate locator, which has the records of all prisoners held in Federal prisons from 1982. The BOP inmate locator requires that the searcher submit a freedom of information Act written request. Only once the request is submitted, details are provided.  If an inmate is held for violating immigration laws, then one searches in the database of the Immigration Department.  


  • If it is known that the inmate is held in a state facility in a known State of Province, then that particular database should be searched. The same if it is known that the inmate is held in a country facility in a known State or Province, the country facility database for that particular State should be used. 


  • If, however, it is known that an inmate is held in a State facility, but that particular State is not known, then a State by State search would have to be done, which takes longer time.

Website Search

When browsing the various websites, there is certain standard information that is required. The full first names and last name of the inmate, the Date of Birth, race, gender, and date of incarceration of the offender (if known). To gain an insight into what could be involved, consider the following. Suppose a searcher is looking for one 'Sarah Allison Jones'. The searcher punches in everything, correctly, but the name is not unique. There are thousands of people with the same names. Various combinations of that name should be tried. Try the full name first, then leave out the middle name, or try with initials only and so on. This is because the website will have the version which the inmate gave to the authorities on the date of incarceration.

The information about the location of the facility where an inmate is held is in a database somewhere. No one gets admitted to an institution without the details being taken down and recorded. Inmates held in Federal prisons are the easiest to search. They will appear in the BOP register where one can get the inmate number for accessing the appropriate database for inmates held in State facilities. It is easier if one knows which State it is, then searches in the appropriate database.

In conclusion, those who are on probation or parole are no longer considered inmates and do not appear in any inmate database.