Locating Prison and Penitentiary Records for Genealogy Research

Interior of Joliet State Prison circa 1890.

Last week, museum curator Steven Wright from the Joliet Area Historical Museum and Old Joliet Prison Historic Site provided an overview of Illinois prison and penitentiary records. The presentation’s recording is available on our YouTube channel until Saturday, July 13.

A large cross-section of Illinois State Prison Registers from the Illinois State Library have been recently digitized and are now searchable on Illinois Digital Archives. While modern-day Statesville is the most recognizable location of the state’s prison system, Illinois Digital Archives houses historic records for Will, Madison and Randolph counties. Here’s a breakdown of what you will find in this collection:

  • Illinois State Penitentiary at Alton Prison (1833–1841; 1847–1858)
  • Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet (ca. 1858–1901)
  • Southern Illinois Penitentiary at Chester (Menard) (ca. 1865–1908)

What if you are searching for ancestors detained in the prison system after 1908? Due to personal privacy concerns, most prison records are unavailable for around 75 years following incarceration. You may need to expand your research to information found in newspapers, circuit court records and family papers. Not everything you need will be conveniently available online. As this is an emerging genealogy topic, you will want to request records stored in a variety of local, regional and state depositories. Here are a few records from the Illinois State Archives to add to your research list:

  • Mittimus Files (robust prison records that include prisoner examinations, court trial information, sentence terms, disposition, names of associates, parental information, health history, occupations, physical appearance, citizenship status and much more)
  • Clemency Files
  • Intake Registers
  • Identification Registers
  • Alias Registers
  • Electrocution Records
  • Prison Photographs
  • Hospital Case Files
  • Parole Registers
  • Daily Role Counts
  • Released to Custody Registers

Records requests can be made by contacting the Illinois State Archives by phone at 217.782.4682 or through their online reference request form.  Archives staff cannot conduct research on your behalf, so you should provide essential information such as the inmate’s name, location of incarceration, general dates of incarceration and the type of crime committed. The IRAD system houses local jail registers, mug books and other legal records in its archives by location. You can browse what is available by county and follow the directions on how to request records from each depository. Should you need help locating this information, make a research appointment with your local library or FamilySearch Center.

Prison records make up just one aspect of researching incarcerated individuals. There is a legal logistical process in which each individual must travel before stepping foot in a prison environment. Depending on the severity of the charge and the sentencing, your ancestor could have spent a few days held in a local jail or were processed and housed in a larger state facility. Most individuals charged with criminal charges would have passed through Circuit Court (in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed) or Federal District Court. Violation of the National Prohibition Act or Volstead Act accounted for up to 66% of federal court dockets from 1920–1930, so don’t overlook federal records if you have a story of a bootlegging ancestor. Each part of this process generates paperwork, and depending on the records retention in the court system you are researching, you may find court dockets that document:

  • Investigation
  • Arrest
  • Charging with a Crime
  • Initial Hearing for Arraignment
  • Discovery / Plea Bargaining
  • Preliminary Hearing
  • Trial
  • Sentencing
  • Appeal
Locating Prison and Penitentiary Records for Genealogy Research

Menard Prison Deaths recorded in St. Dismas Parish records from 1939–1942

A growing assortment of prison-related records are popping up on some genealogy websites. Here are a few examples of items you can find:

What if your ancestors were residing outside of Illinois? Ancestry has some searchable prison records available:

  • California, U.S., Prison and Correctional Records, 1851–1950
  • Georgia, U.S., Central Register of Convicts, 1817–1976
  • Iowa, U.S., Consecutive Registers of Convicts, 1867–1970
  • Kansas, U.S., U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth, Name Index to Inmate Case Files, 1895–1936
  • Louisiana, U.S., State Penitentiary Records, 1866–1963
  • New Hampshire, U.S., Prison Records, 1812–1968
  • New Mexico, U.S., Prison and Correctional Records, 1905–1958
  • New York, U.S., Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865–1939
  • Oregon, U.S., State Prison Records, 1854–1946
  • Pennsylvania, U.S., Prison, Reformatory, and Workhouse Records, 1829–1971
  • Utah, U.S., State Prison Records, 1875–1947

Remember to check with state historical societies for records and resources that may not be available online. This is an emerging genealogy topic, and while your search may be somewhat more difficult, finding the information you need is well worth the effort!

See You At The Library!