Privacy of Incarcerated Individuals: Are Prison Records Public Information?

Privacy of Incarcerated Individuals: Are Prison Records Public Information?

When you go to prison, it feels like you lose your privacy. You no longer can shower in the privacy of your own bathroom. Someone is almost always listening to your phone calls and reading your mail. And, at the drop of a hat, government officials may search you. Making matters worse, public information about you as an incarcerated person can often be easy to find. Are prison records public information?

What public information can people find out about you online?

When you go to federal prison, a simple Google search gives anyone information about you. If someone goes to the Bureau of Prisons’ “Inmate Locator” page, they can find out quite a bit about you. All they need is your BOP (or another official) number or your name. With that information, they can learn quite a bit about you. They can learn your age, race, gender, location, and your release date.

If the person finding this information is your friend or a family member, this might be a good thing. They can use it to send you mail, send you money and more. But, if you want to keep this information private from others, it could be a problem. They can also share this information on social media. If you want your criminal record to remain private, this easy-to-use website could be a problem.

States have websites like the BOP’s, too. For example, Michigan has an “Offender Tracking Information System” website. All someone needs is a little information about you like your name or DOC number. People can find information about your criminal charges, your prison and more.

What information can people find out about you at the courthouse?

People can also learn information about you by going to the courthouse. Usually, anyone can go to the clerk of the court’s office and ask for your file by name or case number. This information might not be available in some cases. However, the public can access most case files.

In the case file, people can read what crimes you were originally charged with. They can also find other information about the charges and see how the case ended. This can give you a lot of details about a person and their record. And many courthouses also let you copy and keep this information for a small fee. That keeps documents about your criminal history out there even if you get your record sealed or expunged.

The public will have access to some of your information while you are incarcerated.
Image courtesy of Element5 Digital via Pexels.

Who might be looking for public information about an incarcerated individual?

Even with information about your criminal record and time in prison available to the public, people may not see it. After all, most of us don’t look for information like that in our daily lives. But there are many times when justice-impacted people don’t expect who might look for this information.

On the one hand, your friends and family are likely to look for it. This is a good thing. It gives them a chance to stay in touch with you and keep up to date on your status. On the other, people in the media might also look for and publish it. Any media attention your case gets could be available forever. This could be a bad thing as you look for jobs after release.

Victims and their friends and family members can also find this information. This can be a bad thing, too. They can share this information on social media. They may even try to hurt your reputation while you’re behind bars where you have no way to defend yourself.

The Takeaway:

There is a lot of public information available about you as an incarcerated individual. People can find out what prison you’re in and learn about your criminal history. They can share this information with others. This includes sharing information to news outlets and on social media. But there is little you can do to prevent this while in prison. And, even if you have your record sealed or expunged afterward, the information can still be out there.

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