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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

New York Prisons and Jails: Historical Research: Finding Prisoner Information

A guide to historical to current resources on prisons and jails in New York City and New York State. By Ellen Belcher

Records of Prisoners Incarcerated in NY, NYC & U.S.

John Jay Library has digitized photographs of Incarcerated Death Row Prisoners as well as Prisoners incarcerated for lesser crimes at Sing-Sing Prison in the Lewis Lawes Papers, which does not contain any further records on individual prisoners. Those records are at the New York State Archives. Some are digitally available, such as Sing Sing Inmate Case Register , the Sing Sing Prison Administration Registers 1865-1939, Photographs of Sing Sing Prison.

For New York State Prisons  Records of the Department of Corrections in the New York State Library and Archives. Their genealogy guide  offers links to information on historical prison and reformatory inmate case files, some of which have been digitized available through a free account with a NY State zipcode for searching Ancestry.com.  You can lookup a prisoner currently/recently incarcerated in the NY State DOCCS system here.

The NYC Department of Records and Municipal Archives should have inmate records of NYC-DOC prisoners held in New York City Jails, but they are not listed here.   The Municipal Archives have many photographs digitally available, search or browse individual jail facilities by name for prisoner identification photographs (mug shots) be sure to search  "mugshot" "mug shot" "mugshots" mug shots" as they are variously described as any of those terms.

A database of NYC prisoners and others buried in the City cemetery on Hart Island, also known as 'Potter's Field' can be found here. You can look up a prisoner currently/recently incarcerated in the NYC-DOC system here.

The National Archives and Records Administration holds inmate files on prisoners incarcerated in Federal Correctional Facilities, NARA also has a NYC location where they offer assistance with researching federal records . You can lookup a prisoner currently/recently incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons here.

Ancestry.com has digitized some FBoP prisoner records from western states.

Researching Prisons and Prisoners

While some archival resources are available, it may not be possible to find files on all individuals incarcerated in New York prisons. It is however possible to find out more about the conditions and events that happened in individual facilities while that person was incarcerated. These are described in detail in the annual reports. 

Monograph reports and prisoner rules and regulations were issued on individual prisons, these can be found in CUNY+ and on Worldcat.

Memoirs and other writings by incarcerated writers could also be a good resource for learning about daily life in specific prisions, bibliographies of this genre are available:

See also our page on researching criminal trial transcripts.

See also

Secondary Research on Prisoners

Trials, sentancing, incarceration, escape, execution and release of prisoners was often reported in the newspapers of the day. Conditions, changes, opening and closing of prisons and jails were also reported in the news.

Try searching the New York Times Historical File or New York State Newspapers (CUNY use only).

Many more newspapers are available in the NYPL Newspaper Collections.