Q. My ancestor was incarcerated. Where do I go to discover why he was jailed?
A. Considering these questions first will help you find an answer: When and where did your ancestor live? When and where was he incarcerated? Was it in a municipal or county jail, or a state or federal prison?
If you don’t know where he served time, begin research where he lived. The local newspaper might have reported the crime and punishment, but you need a specific month and year with which to search the papers. You can then check for microfilm in the libraries in the city or county. A big crime may have made the papers over a wide area and time period.
The county courthouse might hold court records of the crime, trial and sentence. Where you’ll find the minute books or case files depends on whether the crime fell under a county, state or federal court’s jurisdiction. Try looking in the indexes in the office of each court’s clerk. Some courts microfilm or warehouse their older records.
If your ancestor was incarcerated at the time of a census, you’d likely find him enumerated at the facility. That’s the place to look for prisoner records, and those usually specify the crime and court.
When you know his place of incarceration, contact the prison’s historian, archivist or administrators about access to inmate registers. Each state handles such records in its own way and might house older ones at a state archive or historical society. Check the Family History Library catalog <www.familysearch.org> for microfilmed records by doing a place search on the state name; look for a correctional institutions subject heading.
If your ancestor appealed the verdict, published and indexed appellate court case reports are available in the Federal Reporter or the state’s law Reporter series, which you’ll find in many academic or law libraries. Ask about an online search of appellate cases at an academic or law library with subscriptions to LexisNexis or the Westlaw Database.
From the May 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.