If you are searching for a friend or loved one and have reason to believe they may be incarcerated, here’s how to try and find out if someone is in jail.
How to find out if someone is in jail
Considering that the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation—at a rate of 698 per 100,000 residents—there’s a possibility the person you’re looking for could be in prison.
If you want to know if someone is in jail, one of the simplest ways is to call your local sheriff’s office or county jail to ask—only if you suspect this person has been arrested in your area.
However, this isn’t always the best route. Matt Pinsker, a criminal defense attorney who works with Bail Bonds Network, said you may not get a clear answer.
“Depending on county regulations and state laws, some jails won’t release certain types of information publicly,” he said. “If it’s a larger jail, then you can check if there’s a website that might release arrest reports it if keeps an updated inmate database online.”
You can do a simple online search for your local sheriff’s department and browse through its website as well. There are also government websites that helps you search for information nationwide (more on this below).
If you’re not sure which jail to check and you don’t have any luck in your online search efforts, you can keep trying to call multiple jails, even ones in nearby counties. There could be a special phone number or extension you need to call for these types of inquiries. Call the non-emergency number of your local law enforcement office to help track down that information if you can’t do so yourself.
Info you’ll need to help with your search
Whichever option you choose, you’ll need to gather certain information: the person’s full legal name, date of birth, and a physical description such as their hair and eye color, gender, height, weight and race.
Keep in mind that it may be easier to find someone who’s already been convicted than someone who was recently jailed. That’s because a prison inmate will typically be registered (such as with the Bureau of Prisons Register) and you can find their records online.
Someone recently arrested, awaiting trial or sentenced for smaller crimes may be in a jail that doesn’t house records online, or it may take a few days for their online system to be updated. Pinsker also adds that smaller jails don’t produce updated records for the public. And if the inmate is arrested in one jurisdiction and transferred elsewhere for safety reasons, this information won’t be shared publicly.
As mentioned before, searching for someone at the county level may widely vary in terms of how information is released. At the state level, the departments of corrections are typically uniform. If one location has information housed publicly online, there’s a good chance others in the state will, too, Pinsker said. At the federal level, an inmate will be registered and online sources may be more forthcoming.
You can try contacting a law enforcement officer or bail bondsman for intel since they could have access to statewide databases throughout the country. Unfortunately, it could be a regulatory violation or considered criminal behavior to share this information with you, Pinsker cautioned.
Can I find out why someone is in jail?
In some cases, yes. The reason for someone’s arrest can be public information if the prison or jail makes it so. When doing an online search, you may be able to see details such as the person’s date of arrest, whether they’re released and charges filed against that person.
Best resources to find if someone is in jail
Here are a few resources on how to find out if someone is in jail:
- Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inmate locator: Search for information on federal inmates who have been incarcerated from 1982 to now. Keep in mind that information may not always be up-to-date due to the First Step Act, so check back often.
- VINELink: The Victim Information and Notification Everyday program is a service that allows victims of crimes to get information about the status of offenders. You can even place an alert on someone so you can be notified if they’re released from custody.
- Reverse people search services: These may offer clues on someone’s whereabouts, including their criminal status.
How do you find out if an inmate has been transferred?
For safety reasons, you may not find out for sure whether an inmate has been transferred. However, it can be easier to track down an inmate using the federal inmate locator tool. Your state will have its own as well.
You can search for the inmate by their full legal name and physical attributes. If results pop up, make a note of the inmate’s ID number, as this is how most prisons will identify their inmates. It could make it easier to track down the person you’re looking for in the future.
If you want to figure out if someone is in jail, the easiest route is to first do an online search. Gather necessary information such as the person’s full legal name and their physical attributes when you look at federal and state databases. If you suspect this person is in a smaller jail, call the local sheriff’s department if there’s no information online.