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State Prisons: Historical Inmate Records

Historical inmate and employee records from Minnesota State Prisons

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Preliminary Research

To find records for an individual who was an inmate at a Minnesota State Correctional Institution it is helpful to have the following information:

  • Inmate name (and alternative spellings of name)
  • Inmate birth date
  • Inmate death date
  • Prison admission and discharge dates

You can search for an inmate using only their name, but your search will be much easier if you have more information before you start.

Inmate name: The name you should search for is their name at the time of admission.  For women you should search under their maiden name as well as a married name if you do not know the date of admission.  Also, have a few variations of spelling for the name.  Many of the records are handwritten and names may be misspelled or mis-transcribed.  

Inmate birth date:  This is helpful to differentiate between patients with common names. 

Inmate date of death:  This will help determine if the record is under access restrictions or is open to view. 

Prison admission date:  This will help you know if you have the correct individual, and will help determine if the record is under access restrictions or is open to view.

First Steps

If you know someone was in a correctional institution, here are some things to consider:

How old were they at the time of the conviction?

  • Juveniles were sent to different institutions than adults. 

Is the person male or female?

  • From the 1850s to 1919, females and males were sent to the Stillwater Prison.  From 1920 to present, female convicts are sent to the Shakopee Reformatory for Women, while males continue to go to Stillwater. 

Were they tried in a Minnesota court or a federal court?

  • Federal crimes were tried in federal court and the convicted were sent to federal prisons.  MNHS does not hold any federal prison records.

Record Restrictions

Prison records contain private information and are generally restricted for 75 years from the date of the last entry in the record or file. If the record you are requesting will be restricted under this guideline, you should apply for permission to access the records.

Use the Access to Restricted Records for Individuals form to apply for access to restricted prison records. You should also submit the appropriate supporting documentation, as listed on the form. This documentation may include:

  • Proof of your identity (driver’s license, passport, or other government issued photo ID)
  • Proof of subject’s death (death certificate, obituary, entry in the Social Security Death Index, or entry in the Minnesota Death Certificate Index)
  • Documentation demonstrating your relationship to the subject

Applications may be submitted by email attachment, fax (651-297-7436) or regular mail. Once we receive your application, it will be reviewed by our permissions staff and you will be informed--usually via email--if your application is granted or denied. Many of these requests, with supporting documentation, can be reviewed and responded to by staff within two days.

What does MNHS have?

Our record holdings vary by prison.  The prisons did not all keep the same records and had different retention and destruction schedules, so our holdings are not consistent.  

In general we may have: 

Inmate Records- Information on an individual inmate: 

  • Case file: A file detailing the inmates time in prison.  May include health and behavior information, correspondence, parole proceedings, ect. 
  • Commitment papers: Paper filed in the county court committing the individual to prison, often will include court transcripts.
  • Medical case file: A file detailing the medical history of the inmate while in prison. 
  • Admission and discharge records: A line in a ledger book detailing information admission and discharge dates. 
  • Photographs: "Mug shots" of inmates on admission to prison. 

General Prison Research

If you are doing general (non-indvidual specific) research into Minnesota state prisons here are some search tips: 

Search the library catalog using the name of the prison (ex: Stillwater State Prison) and select the "State Government Records" option on the dropdown menu. 

Some of the records you may find will include: architectural drawings, farm records, warden's subject files and correspondence, inventories, photographs, subject files, financial records, and annual reports. 

You can also search for the administrative agencies that provided oversight to the prisons, including the State Board of Corrections and Charities and later the Department of Corrections. For more information on administrative agencies, click here

Pardon Records

Pardon records can be found by searching in the library catalog for the records of the Minnesota Governor at the time of the pardon.  

Some useful collections involving pardons are: 

Pardon Application Registers, 1897-1934
Registers of applications for pardon or commutation of sentence submitted to the Pardon Board by inmates of state, and some county and local, correctional institutions. They consist of filled-in forms, one for each separate application (many inmates submitted several applications at various times).
MNHS call number: See the finding aid in the library (Pardon Board). 

Pardon Applications, 1889-1988
Application forms or letters formally requesting a pardon or commutation of sentence; letters, petitions, and/or affidavits in support and/or opposition; recommendations of the prosecuting attorney, trial judge, and/or trial jury; and sometimes trial transcripts, other background items, additional documentation submitted by the requestor, or other supporting papers.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Pardon Calendars, 1897-1992
Minutes of the Board of Pardons, largely comprising a record of actions on individual pardon applications, although other actions of the board are also mentioned. The pardon applications are often discussed in some detail.
MNHS call numberDigital Finding Aid

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