U.S. Correctional System: Structure, Incarceration, and Facts

US correctional system

Locating a person who may be incarcerated can be challenging. There are many different levels of legal entanglement that may or may not show up in online databases – if you know where to look.

At the moment, there are pretty reliable federal inmate searches and even statewide databases available to the public. Here is some information that should help you narrow your search.

There are over 2 million adults in the American criminal justice system, ranging from local lock-ups to federal Supermax prisons. The number fluctuates daily, and at times information lags due to staffing. A juvenile justice system mirrors the adult jails and prisons, with some 48,000 held in a variety of situations from halfway houses to treatment centers, short-term lockups and long-term secure facilities (prisons), but they are not searchable due to the age of those involved. Juvenile court records are not public documents.

Thousands of additional people are held in nontraditional facilities along the southern border due to the current anti-immigration political climate. Those are federal facilities and searching for individuals among them is challenging.

Locating Federal Inmates

Start with the law enforcement jurisdiction closest to where the individual resided. If you’re looking for a missing person it may take several days for law enforcement to make information available about those recently arrested. The county court clerk’s office may also be helpful, and can provide information about arraignments or upcoming hearings at which the individual must appear. Look closely at search results as individuals also may be released before records are updated. Many jurisdictions have alert systems that will email a notice if an individual is going to be released.


Difference Between Jails and Prisons

Jails vs prisons

Let's find out the differences between jails and prisons.

There are over 3,200 jails scattered across the country. Jails have several purposes, they are locally-run holding facilities for:

  • people arrested and awaiting arraignment or bail;
  • juveniles waiting for transfer to appropriate facilities;
  • those with mental health issues who may be a danger to themselves or others;
  • those in mid-trial who are deemed a flight risk or too dangerous to be released;
  • those convicted of a misdemeanor offense and serving a sentence of a year or less.

Jails can be the most difficult places to track an individual due to the constantly-changing nature of the population and dependence on local funding. Here, a staffing shortage or computer glitch can throw off any ability to search for an individual who has been arrested and is being held, or is serving a short sentence.

Additionally, some local jurisdictions are seeking to shield individuals from public scrutiny by not releasing booking information and not making arrests and arraignments public. While this measure is meant to spare people the public shame of having a minor conviction follow them forever online, it thwarts public access to what should be open records.

Jails can become stagnant places where inmates are overlooked or held too long without trial. The sixth amendment to the U.S. Constitution assures citizens the right to a speedy trial, but all to frequently it is reported that individuals are swept up on inconsequential charges and lost in the system without adequate representation to ensure their rights are respected.

Prisons are state-run facilities, of which there are 1,1719 in the country. These may be directly operated by a state or contracted to for-profit prison corporations. Prisons are reserved for those serving more than a year’s sentence for a serious offense, generally a felony.

Prisons are:

  • segregated by sex;
  • sometimes populated by juveniles as there are more than 4,800 under the age of 18 in adult prisons across the country;
  • disproportionately represented by people of color, as there are 2,300 Black inmates per 100,000 population versus 450 white inmates per 100,000;
  • dangerous, as 50 percent of prison inmates are serving time for a violent offense;
  • kept full by things like “truth in sentencing” laws that require prisoners to serve the majority of their sentences regardless of good behavior or other mitigating factors;
  • stagnant, as rehabilitation programs such as mental health help, classes, and vocational training are nearly nonexistent, resulting in a recidivism rate of more than 70 percent;
  • expensive, as they cost U.S. taxpayers $70 billion a year, and
  • a target for those seeking to reduce taxes, so automatic sentences and the “three strikes” law that was a popular political position in the 1990s are being phased out and nonviolent offenders likely to be released.

Federal Prisons

There are a variety of incarceration arrangements for federal prisoners according to their offenses: white-collar criminals who cheat on stock trading and defraud companies are generally sent to more comfortable federal facilities where their safety is not endangered and activities like tennis are allowed. Dangerous federal convicts who have pursued multi-state crime sprees, run drug rings, bombed buildings, or controlled violent gangs are often relegated to high-security prisons such as the “Supermax” in Florence, Colorado. Supermax incarceration often includes long stints of solitary confinement and strict limits on communications and visitors.

Immigration Detention

Immigration Detainee

Those who have tried to breach the southern border of the U.S. may be held in federal facilities according to the status they are allowed, such as those fleeing immediate and verifiable danger to their lives. You can look up an immigration detainee using RecordsFinder's inmate search tool. Due to the impermanent nature of the associated political policies and fluctuating numbers of individuals allowed over the border legally, keeping track of individual asylum seekers has proven difficult. A searchable database may be found here https://locator.ice.gov/odls/#/index, but it does not pertain to those under age 18.