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The Montana State Prison System

Criminal justice agencies in Montana typically remand offenders on bail or in custody. Following a conviction for an offense, a person will serve time in one of several prison facilities under the supervision of the Montana Department of Corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. These government agencies maintain records of inmates, which are available to the public through official custodians or independent service providers.

What is the Difference Between Jail and Prison in Montana?

Suffice to say that the major differences between jails and prisons in Montana lie in the length of stay, the severity of the inmate’s crime, and the authority that oversees the facility. Offenders, who the Montana judiciary sentenced to twelve months or less in jail, serve that sentence in jail. This jail is typically under the authority of the municipality where the offense happened, i.e., county or city.

Likewise, misdemeanor offenders typically pose less threat to society than felony offenders do. Thus, courts often incarcerate the former class of offenders in jails while felony offenders serve time in prisons. Nevertheless, a misdemeanor offender may serve time in prison if he/she is a repeat offender with aggravating circumstances.

A person who violates municipal criminal codes will spend time in jail and one who commits state or federal crimes will spend time in prison. These prisons are under the authority of a state or federal correctional agency, i.e., the Department of Corrections or the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

Meanwhile, it is also important is distinguish between jails, prisons, and detention centers. Detention centers generally refer to facilities where state and federal criminal justice agencies remand offenders pending conviction and sentence in court. Nevertheless, correctional agencies often use detention centers as prisons or run both in the same location.  

How Many Prisons are in Montana?

The Montana Department of Corrections currently operates five penal institutions as of January 2021. These include:

  • Montana State Prison (MSP)
  • Montana Women’s Prison (MWP)
  • Cascade County Regional Detention Center, Great Falls
  • Crossroads Correctional Center, Shelby
  • Dawson County Correctional Facility, Glendive

According to information retrieved from the Bureau of Prisons website, the U.S. government does not operate a federal prison in the state as of this time.

How do I search for an Inmate in Montana State Prison?

There are two ways to search for inmates currently incarcerated in a state prison or under supervision by the Board of Probation and Paroles.

Contact the facility: The contact information of the penal institutions in Montana is available on this webpage. The searcher must click on the institution where he/she suspects the inmate is located and use the phone, fax, or mailing address to contact the prison. For all direct correspondence with the jail, endeavor to have the name, offender number, and estimated incarceration date at hand. The administrative staff will need this information to search the facility’s database for the inmate status. However, prison policy prohibits the disclosure of sensitive information regarding an inmate.

Use Offender search: This electronic database lists all inmates under the Montana Department of Corrections supervision. Interested persons can use this inmate locator to find an inmate regardless of the facility of incarceration. Upon query, the database will also return information such as the offender’s mugshot, status (secure or parolee), physical description, and a summary of incarceration record.

Are Incarceration Records Public in Montana? 

Yes, incarceration records and criminal history records are public information in Montana. Interested persons must contact the specific local and state agencies to obtain a copy of these documents.

Records that are considered public may be accessible from some third-party websites. These websites often make searching more straightforward, as they are not limited by geographic location, and search engines on these sites may help when starting a search for specific or multiple records. To begin using such a search engine on a third-party or government website, interested parties usually must provide: 

  • The name of the person involved in the record, unless said person is a juvenile 
  • The location or assumed location of the document or person involved 

Third-party sites are independent of government sources and are not sponsored by these government agencies. Because of this, record availability on third-party websites may vary. 

How to Look Up Jail Records in Montana

The Department advises checking the accuracy and currency of the information available on the electronic database before use. Other times, a requester may need specific jail records or detailed information that is not available online. Either way, to look up jail records in Montana, a requester must send a written request to the Montana Department of Corrections at:

5 South Last Chance Gulch

P. O. Box 201301

Helena, MT 59620- 1301

Phone: (406) 444–3930

Fax: (406) 444–4920

The Department also accepts requests for records using an online form. For mail requests, address the request to the Inmate Records Unit. The letter must be concise and contain a short introduction, information on the requester, the reason for the request, and specific records or document sought.

More importantly, the request must cite the state sunshine laws granting access to that record and contain the necessary details to facilitate a record search. These details include the inmate’s name, approximate age, incarceration date, and offender identification number. All of these are available with a preliminary name-based search on the inmate locator.  

The requester must then attach a valid means of identification, enclose the written request in a self-addressed stamped envelope, and send the mail to the address above. He/she must also contact the facility ahead to request an estimate of the cost of reproducing the requested records.

Likewise, arrest records, criminal history, and court records on inmates are public records. To request an arrest record, contact local law enforcement. The Division of Criminal Investigation provides public access to the criminal history of anyone in Montana. Interested persons may also request a background check from the Department of Justice. Likewise, court records on criminal cases involving inmates are also available to interested persons at the office of the clerk of courts (see court directory)..

Can Jail Records be Expunged in Montana?

It depends. The Montana Department of Justice sets the procedure and requirements for expungement in the state. Generally, an intending applicant must have a clean record for at least five years, complete outstanding court orders, and fulfilled all financial obligations. He/she must then submit a petition for expungement to the district court. The court reviews the petition and grants the petitioner authorization to use the expungement form. The whole process takes at least thirty (30) days.

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