People arrested or charged with state crimes in California who can’t post bail usually are kept in a county jail facility while their cases are pending.
People charged with federal offenses often are also housed in a county jail facility while their cases are pending (the federal government contracts with county jails for this).
People convicted of state crimes can be sentenced to continue to serve time in the county jail or they could be sentenced to state prison for more serious felony offenses.
People convicted of federal crimes will be sentenced to a federal prison or penitentiary.
Generally if you know the name of a person who is incarcerated, you can obtain the following information from the local, state or federal corrections agencies that have the person in custody:
- The incarcerated person’s date of birth or age
- The incarcerated person’s identification number
- The specific facility where the incarcerated person is being held
Sometimes the jails or prisons will also provide the date the person was first incarcerated, the court that referred the person to the jail or prison, the penal code section the person was charged with or convicted of violating, the scheduled release date of the incarcerated person if any, and even a record of prior incarcerations of the person for other offenses.
For people in county jail, contact the local County Sheriff’s Department, which usually runs the county jail (in rare cases a city may run a local jail, in which case contact that city’s police department).
For people in state prison, contact state corrections or prison officials. In California that’s the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
For people in federal prison, contact the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Prison and Jail Records Online
Many prisons and jails have online databases for locating incarcerated individuals.
Federal Prison Database
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has an online database of people past and present who have been incarcerated, and an “Inmate Locater” for searching by last name and first name. The website is here:
Search results will include the age, race, sex and registration number of the person, the person’s projected release date, and the prison where the person is incarcerated.
For example, try a search for this person who is incacerated – Theodore Kaczynski (the infamous Unabomber).
State Prison Databases
An online database searchable by person’s name that lists the person’s admission date to prison, the prison where the person is being held, the person’s age and the person’s identification number.
Very limited information on where an person is incarcerated also is available by phone.
Prisons in other states also are putting online their databases of incarcerated people.
A site with links to the websites of departments of corrections in different states, including those with online databases of incarcerated people, is:
(this site also has historical records of incarcerated people at many state prisons)
And a cautionary note: see this Texas Tribune story about errors in the database in that state.
County Jail Databases
Some county jails have made their records available online.
The VINELink website also posts data from some county jails on incarcerated people in custody. You can search the database by an person’s name to determine if they’re in custody and get their inmate ID number, date of birth and other information.
To see which counties are available, go to the:
VINELink is run by a private company – Appriss – that specializes in developing criminal justice data networks.
Another site that has links to county jail “inmate databases” online is:
You can also check the websites of county sheriff’s departments, which run the county jails. In California, the California Sate Sheriff’s Association keeps a list of sheriff’s websites and phone numbers:
San Francisco Bay Area County Jail Online Databases
Here’s a list of links to online databases at some of the county jails in the San Francisco Bay Area:
- Alameda County Sheriff’s Office “Inmate Locater”
- Alameda County Jails – via VINELink
- Contra Costa County Jails – via VINELink
- Marin County Sheriff’s Office Public Booking Log
- San Francisco County Jails – Via VINELink
For the jails listed above via VINELink, click on the link and at the new page click on the Offenders button on the left. Then click on Continue in the disclaimer box.
At the new page select Choose Agency in the box at the top, pick the county jail you want to search form the drop-down menu and then enter information on the incarcerated person you want to locate.
For other Bay Area and California counties, try VINELink’s
Use the same procedure listed above for searching VINELink.
To see how these databases work and what information is available, try searching for a common name like John Smith or just J Smith.
Interviewing Incacerated People
A reporter can make a request with prison or jail authorities to interview an incarcerated person. The person then must grant his/her permission.
For people incarcerated in a state prison in California, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also can withhold permission for an interview, even if the person has agreed.
In each case you should contact the press or public information officer for the agency and ask about their particular procedures for access to incarcerated people.
Here are links to web pages with information on visiting incarcerated people in various prisons or jails:
San Francisco Bay Area County Jails
- Alameda County Sheriff – Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility
- Alameda County Sheriff – Santa Rita Jail
- Contra Costa County Sheriff
- San Francisco County Sheriff
About this Tutorial
This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.
Copyright UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism . Any code samples in these tutorials are provided under the MIT License
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