Photograph of prisoners exercising at Wormwood Scrubs, 1895 (Catalogue reference: COPY 1/420/f174)

This is a brief guide to help you find records of prison administration and policy. Before 1839 prison records are among the correspondence of various government departments held at The National Archives. These records are not yet catalogued and can be difficult to search. Many records after 1839 can be searched by the name of the prison. Many prison records are in local record offices. For individuals see Looking for records of a prisoner.

  • What records can I see online?

    • Parliamentary Papers (1801-2006)

      Search Parliamentary Papers (institutional subscription required). These are an important source of information about prison policy, covering issues such as the efficacy of transportation and the diet of convicts.

  • What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

    • Records held locally

      The National Archives' catalogue has details of collections held by over 2500 archives across the UK. Search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters.

  • What other resources will help me find information?

Did you know?

Until the 19th century most prisons were administered locally and were not the property or responsibility of central government.  Exceptions were the King's Bench, Marshalsea and Fleet prisons, which were Crown prisons attached to the central courts.

From the mid-19th century local and national prisons began to be built to house long-term prisoners as an alternative to execution, transportation or the hulksHulk - a prison ship moored near a naval base to house prisoners, often awaiting transportation.

The Prisons Act 1877 established the Prison Commission, which brought the local gaols under government management. Its duties included the maintenance of all prisons, inspection of prison buildings and the condition of prisoners.

In April 1963 the Prison Commission was transferred to the Home Office as its new Prison Department.