Prisons and Prison Reform Research Guide

 ***THIS is an ARCHIVED guide. It may contain BROKEN links. Its value is HISTORICAL only.***

Current Research Guides 

by Aris Woodham, Director of Web Services And Lecturer in Law, Washington University School of Law Library

A Research Guide to Supplement Prof. Margo Schlanger's Seminar in Prisons and Prison Reform [Visit the course website]


Prisons as an institutional phenomenon and prison reform as a social project have given rise to a large volume of literature in all media. Constructing useful bibliographies on these topics, is, however, a particular challenge because the work often draws from both theoretical and data-driven analysis in a variety of disciplines outside the law, especially social science, politics, and history. As a result, this research guide will not attempt to be a comprehensive bibliography of all literature available. Instead, it will suggest conceptual and practical entry points into the existing body of literature with which the scholar can begin her/his research.

A note about references: I have organized suggested resources by their original medium, that is texts originating on the Web Sites are listed therein, texts originating in monograph form in print are listed under Treatises and Books, and texts originating in serial publications in print are listed under Periodical Literature. Please be aware that the many of the sources originating in one medium may also be available in some digital format, i.e. some monographs may be included in Westlaw’s texts and periodicals databases, and some law review articles are available full-text on the Web or in Lexis or Westlaw sources. Thus the placement of a title beneath a certain category does not exclude the possibility of locating it in another medium. When sources are available on the Web, either from a free site, or a commercial data service like Lexis/Westlaw, I have tried to include a link for easy access. On a technical note, some of the links in this research guide will only be active when launched from a computer within the Washington University Law School or Campus. Others, such as those related to the Online Catalog, will be globally available.

Locating Resources


Scholarly resources tend to fall into general categories which can be useful in understanding their scope and limitations within any research project. For the purposes of this guide, I have identified four primary types of material: (1) reference sources, of the type generally recognized as providing concise or summary information about a broad variety of topics, (2) single-volume analytical works or treatises, those longer works, organized under a single title generally dealing at length with a narrow topic and frequently but not always contained within one volume, (3) periodical works, also called serials, these are publications like journals or law reviews which publish incrementally with multiple authors on a variety of topics usually all under the general auspices of a particular discipline or broad subject, and finally, (4) Web sites and (5) primary source material, in law these would include court decisions, agency regulations and legislative enactments. Data, in the form of statistics, although always subject to varying interpretations, is also considered a type of primary source. For purposes of history, personal narratives, letters, official documents, etc. are considered primary sources.. In terms of legal scholarship all texts but those emanating from a governmental source, are considered secondary texts, that is, they do not issue directly from a law-making authority such as a court, legislature or administrative agency.


  • Historical Records of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri 1953-1997
    This PDF file describes the historical records of litigation and other activities of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri held by the Washington University Libraries. It summarizes the basic elements of the collections and describes its contents, organization and arrangements, with detailed information about the activities of the ACLU during that time period. It includes news clippings, meeting minutes, correspondence, memoranda, publications, case files and other documents related to litigation in which the ACLU was involved.

Treatises and Books

The primary tool for locating treatises and monographs (single title) works is the online catalog. Our Law Library catalog contains records of titles in our Law School collection. (Please see the graphic, Figure 1, below for a detailed explanation of the parts of a bibliographic record in our Web-based online catalog.) Washington University also participates in the Missouri Union Catalog, MOBIUS, which contains records of materials from the University of Missouri campuses and St. Louis University, in addition to other smaller academic libraries throughout the state. Any book located in MOBIUS will have location notes to identify the library of ownership. To determine whether or not an item in MOBIUS is owned by Washington University, click on the title of the book in your results list. The full record associated with the item will be displayed. Items held in these other libraries are available to you through InterLibrary Loan. Please refer to our online explanation of how to acquire these materials if they are not in our Law School. This guide will assist you in acquiring materials not available in-house.

The effect of access to these collections of other libraries is significant. For example, a search for materials with the subject heading Prison administration United States in the Washington University Catalog results in a list of twenty-five titles as illustrated in Figure 2 below. A search for materials with that subject heading in the much larger Mobius Catalog results in one hundred and ten titles, as indicated in Figure 3 below. A search in our law library catalog can be automatically expanded to include items from these other Missouri libraries by clicking on the button titled 'MOBIUS UNION CATLOG', as seen in all the examples below.

Figure 1.
Image of Library Catalog 


Figure 2. 

image of Library catalog 

Figure 3.
image of Library catalog

Subject Headings

As seen in the above example, these online catalogs use a standard set of subject headings to identify materials dealing with certain topics. For example, the text titled "The Future of Imprisonment" byNorval Morris is indexed under two subject headings, Prisons -- United States and Imprisonment -- United States. Clicking on those subject headings while in the catalog (or on this page) will result in a list of subject headings that enumerates the number of titles in that collection that are also dealing with those subjects. Try this by clicking on the subject headings in the previous sentence, which will link to the Mobuis catalog. Lists of titles cataloged under the same two subject headings are linked as follow, (Prisons and and Imprisonment). Other subject headings of relevance include the following

These standardized subject headings represent significant points of access in locating titles in your area of interest. Searching for information cataloged under these subject headings is one of the most precise means of locating useful monographs.

Another method of searching, keyword, will search for your query terms in all major parts of a bibliographic record, i.e. subject headings, author's name and title words. This is a less precise search method but can be useful in expanding the scope of your search for resources. For example, if you are searching for work by the organization, Human Rights Watch and you know that the word prisons is probably in the title, or would appear at a minimum as an author or editor, you could construct a simple keyword search, human rights watch and prisons. The results of that search will consist, for the most part, of works authored or edited by Human Rights Watch that include the word prisons in another part of the record.

As in the Westlaw or Lexis databases, keyword searching looks for the terms appearing anywhere in the record, i.e. title, journal title, author, subject, series, organization names, corporate names, and many books' tables of contents. Like Boolean search techniques used in the online services such as Westlaw and Lexis, keyword searching ignores some 'stop' words, i.e. an, a, etc. You may use Boolean operators (and, or, not) to refine your search and use parentheses to nest them:


KEYWORD: prisons and statistics
KEYWORD: imprisonment and punishment
KEYWORD: prison and alternatives
KEYWORD: (prison or incarceration) and torture

Use the asterisk * to truncate your search terms, i.e.the search constit* retrieves constitute, constitution, constitutional, etc.

Library of Congress Call Numbers

Another type of classification system is represented by the Library of Congress (LC) call number. Each book in a library will have a unique alpha-numeric label derived from this system. If you explore the list of titles resulting from a search on any of the subject headings listed above, you will note that many of the books cataloged under the heading of Prisons tend to have call numbers in the general range HV6000-HV9999. This indicates that the subject of Prisons (and related subjects) are associated with that range of call numbers. This is useful information, as the online catalog also accommodates searches by LC call number. Thus you have another means of broadening the scope of your search. For example, view the results of a search on the LC Call Number HV6025. You will note the resulting list is organized from the lowest to the highest number. If you went to the shelves, the volumes should be arranged in the same order listed on the screen. By clicking on the first underlined call number, and then using the 'Next Record' button at the top of the page to view successive records, you can browse through the records classified with that call number, the online equivalent of physically browsing among the stacks. However, because your results list is limited to those numbers with an HV6025 call number, you will see only titles that deal with criminology.

It is possible to browse through multiple call numbers after viewing the results of any kind of search. For example, after executing a keyword search, click on the title of any record retrieved. You will see a record similar to that displayed in Figure 1 with additional information about the work displayed on the screen. The call number will be a hypertext link. Click on that link to see a list of all the books surrounding that title. As indicated above, you can use the 'Previous Page' and 'Next Page' buttons at the top and bottom of the screen to see materials that fall before and after than number in the classification sequence.


Another method of locating relevant treatises is IndexMaster, a Web-based database, available from within the Washington University Law School. This service allows you to search and view the tables of content and indices of thousands of legal treatises from a variety of legal publishers. For a complete list, see IndexMaster's List of Participating Publishers. You may search for treatises by keyword, publisher, title or author and then browse the index and table of contents for relevancy. After identifying a useful title, you can then return to the Library Catalog and determine whether it is held by any local library. If not available locally, an Interlibrary Loan request can be initiated.

In addition to printed monographs, a few selected treatises are available full-text online in the WESTLAW(password required) Texts & Treatise database (database identifier = TEXTS). This database can be searched using the standard Boolean (Terms and Connectors) syntax common to all WESTLAW databases.

Book Reviews

Citations to scholarly book reviews in the legal literature are most commonly found in law reviews, the primary type of serial in the discipline of law. The process of searching for reviews in this type of source is similar to locating specific articles (see section above on 'Indexing/Abstracting Services' under 'Periodical Literature'). LegalTrac and Wilson's Index to Legal Periodical are both excellent starting points for locating reviews of books published within the last twenty years. For reviews prior to 1980, the print versions of those indexes is the primary access point. These indexes are discussed in detail in the section on 'Periodical Literature'.

Constructing searches for book reviews in bibliographic databases such as LegalTrac and Wilson's ILP is not difficult. By including the search phrase "book review" in quotations in the search query, the result set will be typically limited to those items in which the phrase appears in the title or abstract. Combined with an author's name or words from the title of the book under review, it is easy to pinpoint specific reviews of particular works.

Only a few of the citations retrieved in LegalTrac will provide full-text of the articles themselves. The law review and texts and periodical databases of LEXIS and WESTLAW however, will contain many examples of full-text reviews taken from law reviews and periodicals. The relevant databases are TP-ALL in WESTLAW and All Sources: Secondary Legal > Law Reviews and Journals in LEXIS. A good example(LEXIS password required) of a book review is available through use of the LEXSEE feature. After clicking on the link above you will be asked to enter your LEXIS id. Upon doing so, you will see the full text of the article.

Excellent examples of book reviews in the general literature include the New York Review of Books, and its British counterpart, the London Review of Books.

Current print issues of the New York Review of Books are available in Olin library, Level 2 in the 'Oversize' collection. Current issues of it are kept in the periodicals area, Level 3. The online version contains selected articles from the print newspaper as well as an archive of earlier published reviews.

The London Review of Books is also held by Olin (current issues are on Level 3). Similarly, its online version contains samples of current and older articles.

Periodical Literature (Journals and Law Reviews)

Finding a Journal in the Online Catalog:

There are numerous journals now devoted to issues of prisons, imprisonment and criminal justice administration, some of the most prominent of which are listed below. Many of the same subject headings described in relation to monographs will also apply in locating useful journals in the University's online catalog. For example, see this list of periodicals indexed under the subject heading, Criminal Justice Administration - United States - Periodicals. If you have a specific title or keyword in mind, that can also used to query the catalog using the methods described above. When a periodical is held in print by the Law Library, older issues will be shelved in alphabetical order (by title of Journal) in the north wing of the fifth floor. Current issues of periodicals are shelved in the reserve collection, located at the Circulation Desk. If an item that appears in the catalog is not held locally, a note in the catalog. Will indicate where it can be found. Specific articles from a journal not held within our collection can also be requested via inter-library loan. Because selected articles and abstracts from some Journals are made available on the Web by the sponsoring institutions, each journal title in the catalog will be hyperlinked to its online web site if this is available to the University community.

Some of the more prominent journals in this field are listed below, with holdings information for the Washington University Law School and Hilltop Campus Libraries.

Finding a Journal Article on the Web:

Among the best web sources for non-monographic literature is the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS). Its online service describes itself as "a federally funded resource offering justice and substance abuse information to support research, policy, and program development worldwide" The web site is divided by topic area, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of criminology. In its "Corrections" topic for example, are links to full-text articles (typically in ASCII and PDF format) on a variety of issues. The articles available range from the very current (2004) to the older (late 1980's). The vast majority of the reports and articles linked originate with state and federal governmental agencies, making this an excellent source of "official" information on issues of incarceration and prison populations.


While the online catalog can locate journals by title, a researcher's first priority is always locating relevant articles published within these and other journals on specific topics. This is a task greatly facilitated by the existence of journal indexes. Unlike the library catalogs described above, which provide information primarily about titles, a journal index lists and catalogs the individual articles contained within serial publications.

Indexing/Abstracting Services:

There are two traditional printed legal periodical indexes used in locating scholarly articles in law reviews and other serial publications. These are the Current Law Index [K33 .C87] whose coverage begins in 1980 and goes to the present and the Index to Legal Periodicals [K9 .N32] whose coverage begins in 1908. Prior to that time period, the Index to Legal Periodical Materials, located in periodicals, which began publishing in 1886 and continued through 1932, provides indexing of the major legal periodicals of that time period. Very recent publications (within the last few months) are indexed in the Current Index to Legal Periodicals (a/k/a CILP) [KF8 .W3].

The print indexes are typically published in multiple volumes, whose coverage is chronological. The citations will be arranged alphabetically in by author's last name and subject heading within each volume or pair of volumes. A single article may appear as a citation under several different subject headings. Update pamphlets are issued monthly and bound into a permanent volume yearly. Useful subject headings used in these indexes are similar to those listed above in the discussion of monographs.

The Current Law Index, Index to Legal Periodicals and Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals now have electronic equivalents on the World Wide Web whose coverage begins in the early eighties and extends to the present. Because some areas of law, particularly critical legal studies, has seen most of its literature develop in this time period, online searches may be adequate. LegalTrac, Wilson Index to Legal Periodicals, and the Wilson Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals are all available from the Washington University Law School Web site and can be accessed from any PC within the law school.

LegalTrac on the Web: LegalTrac begins its indexing coverage in 1981. Like the online catalog, it contains hundreds of thousands of records, each record describing an article written in a law review, legal newspaper, or other type of legal serial. In some instances, the full-text of the article will be included with the record, although this is not a standard feature. As with the online catalog, each individual record has subject headings assigned to it that describe the content of the article. In some cases these subject headings are identical to those used in the LC system that is used in classifying monographs (e.g. books), Prisons (1595 articles) and Prisoners (3273 articles) being the most significant of those. The following subject terms all serve as entry points to the serial literature in LegalTrac:

  • Jails
  • Judicial Statistics - Analysis
  • Prisons
  • Prisoners
  • Alternatives to Imprisonment
  • Imprisonment
  • Punishment
  • Sentencing

There are several search methods available for locating articles in LegalTrac. They are listed in the left frame of the introductory LegalTrac screen (subject guide, relevance, keyword, advanced and journal search). See Figure 4 for an example. Any method can be selected by clicking on that option, as displayed. The most basic is termed a 'Keyword search'. In this mode, a user can search by keywords, or the aforementioned subject heading, by entering the words in the white search box. The terms may be joined by a connector such as not or or. If no connector is used the conjunctive and will be assumed and the LegalTrac will search for records that contain both terms occurring in any order and in any part (the same or different fields) of the record. Figure 5 (below) displays the top items in a results list generated by the keyword search 'prisons and statistics'.The advanced search mode allows for searching on specific fields (parts) of the record, the title, subject, or journal name for example. Searches can be limited to words in particular record. In this mode, multiple searches can be run and the results grouped into sets and used in future searches.In both these modes, the search can be limited by date of publication or journal name. For more detailed information on all types of searching in LegalTrac on the Web, click here to see the LegalTrac Help screen.

Figure 4. 

image of Infotrac keyword search

Figure 5.

image of LegalTrac search page

The title hyperlink associated with each record in a results list will (when followed) provide more detailed information about the article and your retrieval options, which will include e-mail and printing of the record, and, in a few instances, e-mail or printing of the full-text of the article. The "full" display will also provide information about whether or not the Library owns the Journal, although this should always be confirmed in the Library Online Catalog.In some instances, the full text of the article will be available at the LegalTrac web site. See Figure 6 below for an example.

Figure 6.

images of infotrac search  web page

Index to Legal Periodicals (ILP) on the Web: ILP on the Web begins its indexing coverage in 1981. Like the Law Library online catalog and LegalTrac, described above, it is a database containing thousands of records, each record describing an article written in a law review, legal newspaper, or other type of legal serial. As with the previous services, the search results, (in the form of cite lists) can be printed or sent to an e-mail account. As is typical, each individual record has subject headings (termed descriptors in Wilson) assigned to it that describe the content of the article. In some cases these subject headings are identical to those used in the LC system that is used in classifying monographs (e.g. books). They are always identical to those used in the printed version of the index. In the area of prisons and imprisonment, the subject headings are very similar or identical to those recommended for LegalTrac.

There are two search modes in the Web-based ILP (See Figure 7 below), Basic Search and Advanced Search. Both support simple keyword searching as well as more complex Boolean search phrases. As indicated in Figure 8, searches can also be limited to words in specific fields within the citation record, such as the title, author and subject fields. Date ranges can be specified in the basic search form as well. For instructions on formulating more complex search queries in ILP, click here.

In the area of prisons and imprisonment, the Index to Legal Periodicals lists over 987 separate articles which are cataloged under the subject heading prisons and prisoners.

Figure 7.

image of Wilson Web search page

Figure 8.

image of Wilson Web advanced search page

National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS):
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) describes itself as ".. A federally funded resource offering justice and substance abuse information to support research, policy, and program development worldwide." It is organized into the following subject areas:

Drugs and Crime
Juvenile Justice
Law Enforcement
Victims of Crime

Within its topic areas, links draw heavily on the statistical and narrative information available at many of the major governmental sites referenced later in this guide, especially the Bureau of Justice, Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The online research services LEXIS(password required) and WESTLAW(password required) also have databases containing digital equivalents of both major print indexes (i.e. LegalTrac and Index to Legal Periodicals) in addition to full-text databases containing periodical and newspaper articles. In WESTLAW the Current Index to Legal Periodicals (database identifier = CILP) contains article citations from recently published periodicals. The Index to Legal Periodical (database identifier = ILP) and Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals (database identifier = IFLP) contain citations dating from 1984. The Legal Resource Index (database identifier = LRI) is based upon the print index, Current Law Index [K33 .C87] and thus only references articles dating from 1980. UNCOVER, an index to articles from many different disciplines in the humanities and sciences, is also available (database identifier = UNCOVER). In LEXIS/NEXIS, the Legal Resource Index (Library = LAWREV, File = LGLIND) and Index to Legal Periodicals (Library = LAWREV, File = ILP) are also available.

As a result of this coverage in WESTLAW AND LEXIS, several of these periodical indexes, the Index to Legal Periodicals for example, are available to you in three modes, print, the Web, and the online services. Furthermore, the content of LRI, available on both LEXIS and WESTLAW is a subset of the LegalTrac database, available on the Web. The selection among these services and the resulting delivery mechanisms (attached printing, e-mail, stand-alone laser printing) depends largely on individual preference, however, the scope of all of these digital indexes is limited to the last twenty years. Prior to that time frame, the only access points available will be through the print indexes.

While selected full-text articles from Law Reviews and Legal Newspapers are available in the online research services, WESTLAW(password required) and LEXIS/NEXIS(password required), it is important to remember that not all articles from the periodicals represented in these databases are available online in these services. Most periodical articles, especially if they were published prior to 1980 are not available online unless they appear in the Hein Online database, discussed below. Although many different databases in LEXIS/NEXIS and WESTLAW contain articles from legal periodicals, the primary sources are WESTSLAW's Texts & Periodicals-All (database identifier = TP-ALL), and Journals & Law Reviews (database identifier = JLR) and LEXIS/NEXIS's combined law review files (Library = LAWREV, File = ALLREV) and combined bar journals (Library = LAWREV, File = BARJNL).

Hein Online:
Hein Online is a project of Hein publishing that is charged with converting all major English language legal periodicals to digital format. Although the full-text search mechanism is not as sophisticated as that seen in Lexis and Westlaw, it remains the only online source for accessing pre-1980 legal periodical articles. A list of the journals currently available there can be seen at this page. Because of the less developed searching mechanism, it is preferable to search for pre-1980 materials in the print indexes and then use those cites to retrieve the articles from Hein.

Non-legal periodicals:
Because the topics of prisons and imprisonment overlap extensively with other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, non-legal periodical indexes can also be of considerable importance in your research. The general libraries of Washington University provides numerous indexes of scholarly and general literature their Web-based information gateway. A list of the databases sponsored there is available. Full-text sources are listed separately. Of particular interest for this course are the Expanded Academic Index, Book Review Digest, Philosopher's Index, and Dissertation Abstracts Online.

Web Sites

The non-proprietary textual material found in files located on the computers that make-up the Internet constitutes a large body of material, much of it difficult to classify. While some web sites impose a type of organization on their texts which can be considered analagous to that of a serial, others resemble forms more akin to a monograph. With matters of classification further complicated by the ephemeral nature of many web pages, I have placed web sites within their own unique category. In this section, I am referring specifically to sites sponsored by non-conventional publishing sources. That is to say, highly organized database services such as Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis, which have moved to the Web as their primary delivery channel, are altogether distinct and have been referenced earlier in this guide.

In contrast to those well-designed and highly commercial resources, most types of full-text information on the Web must be located primarily through searching one or more of the major Web search engines, such as Google and Dogpile. Each of these sites has an extensive help section which will provide information about constructing search queries. As a general rule, they will accept keyword search queries, entered with connectors of any kind. Those listed here, however, will also support limited types of Boolean search queries. As with any information whose source is uncertain or unknown, texts of unknown provenance on the web should be evaluated critically. The following sites are sponsored by known institutions and constitute a mere sampling of what is available. Nonetheless, they are a good starting point for locating reliable resources on the Web.


Suggested Web Sites:

Library Collections: 

  • Historical Records of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri 1953-1997
    • This PDF file describes the historical records of litigation and other activities of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri held by the Washington University Libraries. It summarizes the basic elements of the collections and describes its contents, organization and arrangements, with detailed information about the activities of the ACLU during that time period. It includes news clippings, meeting minutes, correspondence, memoranda, publications, case files and other documents related to litigation in which the ACLU was involved.


  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (Criminal Justice Section)
    • The ACLU site contains a mix of news, advocacy information and full-text reports. The latter is the most useful category for scholarly researchers.
  • American Correctional Association
    • The national organization representing correctional employees. The site is typical of those sponsored by trade/professional associations, but does include links to reports and governmental publications in the area of corrections. The Association also promulgates standards, as referenced below.
  • American Jail Association
    • Similar to the American Correctional Association, the AJA is the trade/professional association for those working within American Jails.
  • Amnesty International 
  • Prison Law Office (California-centric) 
  • Prison Policy Initiative
    • The PPI is an advocacy group that "conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policy. Our work starts with the idea that the racial, gender and economic disparities between the prison population and the larger society represent the grounds for a democratic catastrophe. Our conception of prison reform is based not solely in opposing a rising rate of incarceration, but in evolving to a better way of addressing social problems than warehousing our citizens in cages…" Their Research Index file provides potentially useful links to a variety of information sources on the web.
    • A site that is oriented to the corrections industry, with a mix of news articles and links to other "trade" organizations in the area of prisons and corrections
  • The Sentencing Project
    • From the home page: "The Sentencing Project is a .. Non-profit organization which promotes reduced reliance on incarceration and increased use of more effective and humane alternatives to deal with crime. It is a nationally recognized source of criminal justice policy analysis, data, and program information. Its reports, publications, and staff are relied upon by the public, policymakers and the media."
  • Human Rights Watch
    • As described in their website: "Human Rights Watch is the largest human rights organization based in the United States. Human Rights Watch researchers conduct fact-finding investigations into human rights abuses in all regions of the world. Human Rights Watch then publishes those findings in dozens of books and reports every year, generating extensive coverage in local and international media." Many of the organizations reports are available at its website.
  • National Institute of Corrections (NIC)
    • The NIC, a component of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons, also provides assistance to federal, state, and local corrections agencies working with adult offenders. The NIC Information Center, located in Longmont, Colorado, is a national clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of information on all aspects of adult corrections.
  • North Carolina Division of Prisons
    • Information about the prison system and its programs.
  • Correctional News
    • News and ideas related to the design, construction, management, and operation of prisons.
  • Federal Prison - A Survival Guide
    • Practical advice to ease the uncertainty, depression and pain of family members and the person destined to spend time in a Federal Prison
  • Corrections USA
    • Not for profit corporation run by and for Correctional Officers. Issues, calendar and membership information.




Statistical Sources

Bureau of Justice Statistics (US Department of Justice) - Prison and Corrections
The Bureau of Justice Statistics is one of the premier information gathering bodies in the area of corrections. Its data collections include both current and historical material. Furthermore, its section on prisons, linked below, is a necessary starting point for any statistics-gathering project in the subject of prisons or prisoners.
The major categories of information provided there are listed below:

An explanation of the major data collections of the BJS is available at this page.

BJS data is made available for use by social scientists at the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research's web site, ICPSR. This organization collects and organizes data in a format compatible with the primary software packages used for statistical analysis, specifically, SPSS and SAS. Its website provides detailed information and a tutorial on accessing the data sets for use in research and analysis.

The Office of Justice Programs is another federal website provides many valuable links with statistical and textual information. The main sections are: Whats New, Conferences, and Research and Statistics.

At the state level, the Justice Research and Statistics Association provides links to Statistical Analysis Centers and state agencies that "..collect, analyze and disseminate justice data." It is a good starting point for state statistical research. The "official" web sites of the individual states will also, when available, link to their equivalent of the federal justice department. These agencies also collect data and make it available both online and in print.

Primary Source Material

Case Law:

Most litigation involving prisons and prisoners is concentrated at the lower level of the state and federal court systems.While opinions form the core of the authoritative text in this area, court orders and other documents can also be useful, especially when tracking a particular case through the criminal justice system, at either the state or the federal level. A good beginning point for locating criminal court records is the page at "The Virtual Chase" that focuses on this topic. Of critical importance, especially in individual case studies, is the PACER system, an online representation of most federal court dockets. Because links to the full-text of orders and opinions are sometimes included on PACER, it can be a valuable resource. It is a subscription-based service, however, the Library does have an account which can be used by students acting under the supervision of a law librarian. For more information on accessing and using PACER, contact Aris Woodham at

Because prisons and prisoner issues are often litigated primarily at the lower levels of the judiciary, many of the opinions are not published in any systematic format. Decisions of the Federal district (trial) courts, when they are published, appear in print in the Federal Supplement, v. 1 (Oct. 1932) -v. 999 (1998); 2nd series., v. 1 (1997) - Present, located in the Federal Materials section on the fifth floor of the Library.

Relevant opinions from the Federal District Courts also appear in the Federal Rules Decisions, a West publication also shelved in the Federal Materials section of the Library on the 5th Floor. Because the Federal Supplement has traditionally printed only a small percentage of all cases reported out of all the Federal District Courts, the Federal Rules Decisions supplements it with "those cases from the U.S. District Courts which interpret the Federal Rules of Criminal and Civil Procedure but which have not been designated for publication in the Federal Supplement. This … includes articles commenting on the Federal Rules" (taken from West's description).

Many unpublished opinions, in addition to the published decisions, of the district courts appear in the online services, which makes them excellent sources for opinions not found in print. The most relevant databases are in WESTLAW(password required) (database identifier = DCT) and LEXIS/NEXIS(password required) (Library=GENFED, File=CADC). A few District and Bankruptcy courts have begun to post decisions on the web, but there are relatively few. A comprehensive and current list of federal court sites is maintained at the Federal Judiciary Home Page.

At the appellate level, a certain portion of the Federal Circuit Court opinions are reported in print in the Federal Reporter, v. 1 (Mar.-May 1880) - v. 300 (Sept.-Nov. 1924), Federal Reporter 2nd (F.2d), v. 1, (Nov. 1924-Jan. 1925)-v. 830 (1993), and Federal Reporter 3rd, v.1 (1993) - present, all located in the Federal Materials section of the Library on the 5th Floor. Paradoxically, some previously "unpublished" opinions from the Appellate courts are now published in a print reporter titled "Federal Appendix". Dating from the early 1960s this contains some of the opinions not appearing in the Federal Reporter series. As with the District court opinions these Appellate Court cases are also reported in the online research services, WESTLAW(password required) (database identifier = CTA) and LEXIS/NEXIS(password required) in their Federal Cases Library.

In the past several years, the Appellate Circuits have begun to post their slip opinions on the Web, sometimes supplemented by other documents related to specific cases. The primary site for locating these is the Federal Courts Finder, which lists each Circuit Court, with links to the appropriate server. These databases are generally limited in scope to the last few years and may contain uncorrected slip opinions, which should be relied upon with caution. Nonetheless, they constitute a possible source for text not found in any print or commercial online source.

In regard to historical information, Federal cases from 1789-1880 are printed in Federal Cases, also located in the Federal Materials section, as well as the Reading Room of the Library. The equivalent databases online are in WESTLAW (database identifier = ALLFEDS-OLD), covering Federal cases from 1789 through 1944 and the OLDER file in the GENFED library of LEXIS/NEXIS.

An excellent starting point in locating discussions of specific topics within the area of prisons and prisoners within case law is the West Digest system. Based on a classification tree, the Digests provide references to cases which discuss specific topics within that classification scheme. The subject of Prisons has its own topic within this system, which can serve as an excellent starting point.

The Federal Digest, now in its 4th series, will cite federal cases with brief summaries, organized by topic name and key number. The original series covered cases decided between 1754 and 1938. It was followed by the Modern Federal Practice Digest, whose coverage spans 1939-1961. The period 1961-1975 is contained within West's Federal practice Digest 2d. The third series, West's Federal practice digest 3d, covers case law from December 1975 through 1989. The fourth series begins its coverage with cases in 1989 and is ongoing. The Federal Rules Decisions has its own digest as well, Federal Rules Digest, now in its third edition, that indexes most of the cases reported in the Federal Rules Decisions

In addition to the print digest series, WESTLAW online service contains the complete outline of topic names and the key numbers they contain in its Key Number Service. Through this service, searches can be run on specific topic/key number combinations in specific databases. The searches draw on the headnotes preceding each case, all of which are classified with at least one topic name and key number from the West subject outline of the law. A button to launch this service is displayed on the pull-down menu to the right on West's 'Welcome' screen. This outline enables a searcher to use the key number system quite easily. For example, to search for Federal Court cases discussing the issue of "Maintenance and care of prisoners", look under the topic "Prisons" in the Key Number Service outline that is available. Select that subtopic and click on the "search selected" button. You will be prompted to refine the search in the resulting screen. If an appropriate database is chosen, the search will retrieve both published and "unpublished" opinions from West's databases.

Bibliographies - Web-Based

In spite of the flippancy implied by its name, the web site, "Prison Sucks," site provides some potentially useful bibliographies and other links to reliable information sources.

For additional assistance with this, or any research topic, please do not hesitate to contact a reference librarian.