While civilian prison records are a matter of public record and some information can be found online or obtained through correspondence, military prison records are private and less accessible: the exception being prisoner of war records and casualty lists from various conflicts. Civilian prisons include federal prisons and state prisons, while military prisons encompass the various branches of service and U. S. Disciiplinary Barracks Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, the only remaining maximum security military prison in the U. S., serving all military branches. The U. S. Disciiplinary Barracks Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas is often confused with the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary; however, the two are distinctly separate institutions.
Historical counterparts to the U. S. Discipliary Barracks was its Eastern Branch, Castle Williams at Governor's Island, New York, and its Western Branch at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. Castle Williams was a minimum security prison in operation from 1865 until its close in 1965. Alcatraz Island served as a military prison from 1861 to 1933; it became a U. S. Federal Prison in 1934 and was finally closed in 1963. Both Governor's Island and Alcatraz Island are now owned and operated by the National Park Service.
The National Archives houses many federal prison records, including |inmate case files. For state prison records, contact the Department of Corrections for your state of interest. A number of early state prison records can be found online. In addition to the soldier's military record, perhaps the most direct path to finding information on military prisoners would be to contact Judge Advocate General for your branch of service and request a "court martial order" number for your ancestor. You can then contact the National Archives Modern Military Branch to see about ordering a copy of the court martial, which will give you a good start (see Other Resources, below). You may also wish to locate your ancestor in the U. S. Federal Census. For example, the 1910 census for Governor's Island (New York, New York, Manhattan Ward 1, District 002), the listing of "military prisoners" is alphabetical and begins about half-way through the set (for other prison, hospitals and asylums, residents are typically listed as "inmate.")
The Genealogy Today website hosts a Criminal Records database and, a number of state prison lists are included in the Genealogy Today Subscription Data. Prison and prison-related records from across the web can be found through our LiveRoots.com search. In addition, are the following articles from the GenWeekly archive:
United States Penitentiary-Leavenworth Inmate Case Files Handout (scroll down to see Leavenworth Prison Records by Jake Ersland.
Modern Military Records Branch - records after 1900
Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office. This Record Group, covering the pre-1900 period, has a group of records created by the Military Prison Record Division.
Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General's Office. This Record Group is more specific to Governor's Island.
Also available are court-martial case files in Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General, including case files of general courts-martial, courts of inquiry, and military commissions, 1809-1939; with index, 1891-1917.
Specific to Governor's Island (similar histories may be available for other prisons) Online history of Castle Williams, published by the National Park Service
"Governor's Island : its military history under three flags, 1637-1913" (includes lists of those buried on Governor's Island).
East Coast Alcatraz * A note of thanks to Jake Ersland for insight on specific National Archives records.
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