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If someone close to you has gone to prison, keeping in touch can be a challenge. Inmates are often transferred away from their original facility, and each prison has slightly different rules regarding how and when its inmates can be contacted. This article provides information to help you overcome any obstacles you may encounter while locating and contacting an inmate.

If someone you know has just been arrested, contact your local law enforcement agency or a criminal defense attorney to find out where they are located.

Steps to Locate an Inmate
Before the Internet, locating an inmate could take weeks. You would often have to call different prisons across the country until you found your inmate. Many federal and state systems offer tools to help you find an inmate online. However, many inmates are held in county or municipal facilities. The ease of locating an incarcerated person in a county or local jail varies greatly by jurisdiction.

The federal inmate locator allows you to search all the federal prisons by entering an inmate’s name. Each state has its own inmate locator as well. While there may be some differences, most of the state locators work in a very similar fashion to the federal inmate locator.

Most search engines will tell you the prison in which the inmate is located, the contact information for the prison, and the inmate’s ID number. Once you find the inmate you’re looking for, be sure to save his or her ID number. Since the ID numbers are how most prisons identify their inmates, including the number in your correspondence will help your letters reach the correct person.

Steps to Make Contact with an Inmate
The easiest and most reliable way to contact an inmate while he or she is in prison is to mail letters. Prisoners receive mail regularly, and usually have access to pens, paper, and envelopes to send their own correspondence. Be sure to put the inmate’s ID number on the outside of the envelope, so that the letter doesn’t get lost within the prison. Some prisons require their inmates to open all mail in the presence of a guard to ensure the mail doesn’t contain any drugs or weapons.

In other prisons, the staff may even read the mail prisoners receive, so it’s best to avoid including any sensitive information in your letters. Check with the individual prison to find out what you’re allowed to send inmates and other facility-specific guidelines.

Generally, images that could be viewed as pornography are prohibited by corrections facilities, as are escape instructions and gambling materials like fantasy sports league literature. Some restrictions are surprising. For example, Texas prisons do not allow books to be mailed from individuals; they must be sent from retailers.

Each prison’s visiting and telephone policies are slightly different. Some prisons allow in-person visits, while others only allow telephone contact. Sometimes, only attorneys are allowed to visit inmates. Contact the prison to find out what its visitation policy entails.

Basic Information for Family Members Visiting Loved Ones In Custody
If you’re visiting a loved one in jail, be sure to arrive at the jail facility early. The wait lists to visit inmates can be long, and early arrival may be the only way to ensure your day won’t be entirely wasted.

Call or verify by email that your loved one is available, and that the visiting day you’ve chosen is valid and not blacked-out by a holiday or another reason like a lockdown. Ask about security protocols. Some facilities will not allow visitors with belts, any metal jewelry or clothing, and all electronic devices. Arriving unprepared for screening could shorten or prevent a visit with an inmate.

Upon arrival, be sure to have a valid driver’s license and your loved one’s inmate ID number, and that the car you arrive in has valid registration. Be prepared to leave your cell phone in your car, along with any metal objects and writing instruments. The screening process can be strict and stressful, and subject to several restrictions.

As with jail letters, bring a cashier’s check or money order if you want to “put money on the books” for your loved one, so they can purchase additional food and toiletry items at the jail commissary. Extra money for phone cards will help your loved one as well. As you may have already discovered, collect calls from jail cost as much as 50 times as much as a normal collect call.

If you must relay sensitive information about your loved one’s case, you’re best off giving the information or documents to your loved one’s attorney for their next attorney interview or attorney visit.