How to Find an Inmate in Jail

How to Find an Inmate in Jail

The effort to find an inmate can be an understandably challenging one when you consider there are around 1.8 million people incarcerated throughout the United States. On top of that, they're housed among various agencies ranging from local to state to federal.

To help you get your message out to the person you're trying to reach, we are about to share three simple steps. But first, let's examine the very valid reasons you have for doing so in the first place.

Why Contact an Inmate?

The simple answer to this question is that inmates are people, too. And they're cared for and loved by tens of millions of fellow Americans regardless of their past mistakes. Here are some common and perfectly justifiable reasons you may wish to do so. 

Family or Friend

Everyone makes mistakes, and we all have family members or friends who've been there from time to time. Just because those mistakes rise to the level of an arrest, doesn't mean you should forget them.

Your contact and support could be what helps keep them out of trouble moving forward. You could be the difference-maker in their lives. Being able to stay in contact is the only way you can have that type of impact. 

Ministry Purposes

Similar to the idea of family or friends, there may be a spiritual reason for wanting to connect with inmates. In fact, there were more than 4,800 prison ministries active in the United States today, according to data received from the International Network of Prison Ministries

Spiritual leaders who wish to have a lasting impact on inmates may wish to start correspondences with these individuals to reinforce the effectiveness of their in-person visits. It's a way of spreading goodwill in an environment that's not often known for it. 

Safety Information

Victims of violent crime, in particular, have every right to know the status of the people who hurt them in the past. At the same time, safety goes both ways. 

For concerned families of inmates, the ability to locate their entry and keep tabs on their progress and release can help. It does so by having someone on the outside who cares about how the inmate is being treated, and it discourages abuse and neglect in our prison systems.

1. Prepare Your Search

The first thing you will need to learn when finding an inmate's location is the name. This is a bit self-explanatory, so we won't spend very long on it. However, there are a few tips, in particular, that you may need to keep in mind, especially if you're not a close relative of the individual. 

Last Name and Date

The last name is one of the most vital pieces of information that you can have outside of a Social Security Number. Most native inmate locators use this as the starting point in a search. We say starting point because if the inmate has a generic name like James Smith, it can be hard locating the right one with the volume of records that detention centers are required to keep.

Spelling Is Important

Getting the spelling is important if you're using the county-provided search tools. These databases aren't always the best at running searches, and you also have to account for user error on the part of the jurisdiction.

For that reason, you'll want to search it a few ways. Search the way you know to be correct as well as some potential alternative ways to search if that doesn't provide you with the results you're looking for. Law enforcement officials often book individuals with slight variations in spelling that can cause trouble with your searches.

Booking Dates

If you're not clear on the name spelling, then you might search by booking date. Most locators allow you to run a search in case you're not clear but know the general timeframe. It's a lot easier than scrolling through hundreds of records. 

2. Determine the Jurisdiction

Finding the jurisdiction of the arrest is another aspect of your search that could be more challenging than it initially appears. For example, you might call the city police department asking about an arrest the sheriff's department made. They won't have any record of it, but you might not realize that. 


Cities usually house their inmates at county detention centers, except for cases where the city is of considerable size. Therefore, you may wish to start all inquiries with the county where the crime occurred anyway, regardless of who actually made the arrest. 


Counties tend to house both misdemeanor and felony crimes, where the individual is going to be housed no longer than a year. For the more serious offenses, dubbed "part one crimes" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you might check with the state penitentiaries in the state where the crime(s) was committed. 


For federal inmates, then the inmate you are looking for will be housed in neither a county detention center nor a state penitentiary. Instead, they will be located in federal prison. You can use this BOP inmate locator from the federal Bureau of Prisons to find the individual you are looking for. 

3. Visit the Appropriate Portal

Once you have determined where the individual is located, it's time to find the appropriate search portal. It's great if you have a direct link and know how to use the often clunky local systems. If not, we'll talk about an alternative to direct search in a bit.

Search Direct

In the rare cases where a city keeps its own jail, you can start at the city government's webpage and follow the link to the Police Department or try googling the city police website. Cities vary in how they handle this (i.e., independent police sites vs. those linked to the city domain).

The same rule applies to county searches. Find the county government webpage, and inmate locators are usually affixed to the subpage belonging to the Sheriff's Office. 

Using a Notification Network

Notification networks are not all created equally, but those that are kept up-to-date can take a lot of the guesswork out of things for you. Jail Exchange offers easy-to-use locators by city/county, state, or federal, and they are updated regularly. This is a superior way to search if you're not sure where to start with the inmate, or if you're going to be doing a lot of research on multiple inmates across more than one jurisdiction.

You Found Them: Now What?

If you've followed the protocols and sources we've provided above, then by now you've found the inmate you're looking for whether he or she is in one of the county detention centers or prisons across the US. Now it's time to decide what you plan to do with the information. 

Decide How to Use the Information

The prison system does not place any real restrictions on how you use the information from an inmate search with which you're provided. It's public information protected in varying ways by Freedom of Information laws on a state-by-state, case law basis. 

If all you're hoping to do is contact the inmate, there will be ways that you can do this that tend to vary by facility. Some inmates are limited in the contacts they can have with the public, so you'll want to phone or email ahead to get the appropriate protocols. 

Most of the time, the best ways to reach an email will be through traditional mail or via phone call. Some in-person visitation is also allowed on a limited basis. The jail or prison will have the appropriate instructions.

Choose Method of Contact

Once you've determined how you plan to approach the inmate, you will need to prepare the communication. If by letter, keep in mind that he or she may not be the only one reading the messages that you're sending (probably won't be), so keep contacts appropriate and positive. 

Phone calls and in-person visits will need to be arranged in advance. Visitation in-person will require arriving early at the facility and checking in at the main entrance. You will then wait and follow the instructions as provided by the on-duty personnel. 

Follow Instructions as Provided

One last thing to mention about following the protocols. It is vital that you do because not only will it ensure that your communication(s) is received by the inmate but also it will allow you to go on contacting them in the future. Intentionally, or even unintentionally, violating the protocols can get you banned from contacting the inmate in the future. 

It Is Simple to Find an Inmate if You Know What to Look for

It is not difficult to find an inmate depending on where you're looking and the specific method you're using to run the search. While it's possible to run the search on city, county, state, or federal websites all across the country, it's also tedious doing all the legwork. 

Instead, consider using an all-in-one service like Jail Exchange. One simple search will get you to the location and the inmate you're looking for, and it will also help you learn and comprehend the protocols required for contacting them. Contact us today to learn more, or visit this page of frequently asked questions.