Q. How do I go about looking for old prison records in California without spending a lot of money?
A. An easy — and free — place to start is the Online Archive of California. A quick search of the catalog for prison reveals a range of materials, including California State Prison at San Quentin records, 1851-1910, San Quentin Folsom Prison Index 1910, and even a reward poster for escapees from Folsom in 1890. Only a few of these collections are online, but this statewide catalog can direct you to the repository holding the actual records, such as the state library or historical society.
If your criminal ancestor was incarcerated in a federal, rather than a state, prison, the records would be housed (along with federal court files, which may be helpful) at the National Archives and Records Adminstration (NARA) regional offices. Alcatraz records, for example, are at the NARA branch in San Francisco; you’ll find a roster of former inmates, 1934 to 1963, NARA’s website.
For a complete guide to holdings of federal district court records, including criminal courts, see NARA’s website. Some of these records are on Family History Library (FHL) microfilm.
The FHL has microfilmed many local court records. If your ancestor was tried in Sacramento, Calif., for example, you can consult microfilmed county district court records (1862 to 1881), county court minutes (1867 to 1883), court of sessions records (1850 to 1863) and two indexes to early court records.
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