I watched a documentary where it was stated that US convicts would be sent to prison with a piece of paper detailing what they have been convicted of. Many other inmates would try to steal this document to "find out" about the new guy on the block.

This poses dangers to people who have been deemed enemies of these inmates, including sex offenders, former police officers, and members of opposing gangs.

Are there any lawyers from the US who can comment on this practice? Isn't this a violation of the convict's privacy? What is even the point of this document (if it even exists)?

  • 3
    Gang members will often have tattoos or other marks, so a piece of paper may not be necessary. I believe the charging documents they are sent with are normally the property of the state, and intended for the prison office, so that they have documentation of their prisoners, not that the prisoner would keep it in their cell. It is common in multiple states/cities to publicize details of arrests/convictions (see "Florida Man"), including on TV/newspapers, which may be available to prisoners. Dec 2, 2023 at 4:48
  • @Clockwork-Muse Cant the charging documents be sent more discretely/electronically? Also, I didn't know prisoners had access to TV and newspapers.
    – AlanSTACK
    Dec 2, 2023 at 5:48
  • 1
    @AlanSTACK changes are slow. Also, Paper is the most easy to run: A paper document can be read by any employee on the road without extra tools.
    – Trish
    Dec 2, 2023 at 8:49
  • @Trish I didn't even know "charging documents" existed before today. Do you, by any chance, know if they usually include the entire rap sheet (historical convictions too), or would it just be the current conviction?
    – AlanSTACK
    Dec 2, 2023 at 9:39
  • The historical answer, of course, is that the prison needs an official order to imprison the inmate, and that for most of history since the invention of writing the best form for this order is a written document. Similarly, the prisoner's criminal record is of interest to the prison as others have explained. The most secure way to ensure that these documents reach the prison is to transport them with the prisoner. Replacing the written records with electronic databases has only become realistic in the last few decades, so you also have to take inertia into account.
    – phoog
    Dec 2, 2023 at 17:37

1 Answer 1


Laws governing rap sheet disposition are set at the level of state law, for state crimes, I will focus on Washington state. Rap sheets have "always" been sent to prisons and there is no effective way of tracing the political rationale behind the laws. The premise is that the prison needs to know if they are dealing with a serial killer or an embezzler, for obvious practical reasons. At various times, political movements may result in a change in the law, but any lacuna that you perceive in the laws is due to political facts. We can at least say what the relevant laws are.

RCW 10.97.050 is the law enabling dissemination of records. Subsection 1 states that "Conviction records may be disseminated without restriction", therefore I can fill out this form and get information on someone. Subsections 2-3 also allow dissemination of nonconviction data to another criminal justice agency, as long as the purpose is administration of criminal justice, with some exceptions in RCW 13.50.260, also in order to comply with the law (a statute, court rule etc), including a contractual relation between an individual and a criminal justice agency, etc.

Since the law does not grant an absolute right of privacy to a convict with respect to their arrests and convictions, from a legal perspective there is no violation of their privacy. The criminal history is a government record, and disclosure (not privacy) is mandated by state law except in specified conditions (e.g. you cannot obtain a state employee's home address since that information is exempted under numerous clauses in the law). Convict privacy is relegated to Ch. 10.97 RCW, cited above.

No part of the law imposes specific security requirements on prisons to keep records from falling into wrong hands. There is a law prohibiting convicts from having guns or knives in prison, which is imposed on the convict. No law prohibits a prisoner from being in possession of information (such a law is unlikely to survive energetic judicial review), and no law mandating an infallible system of keeping criminal history out of the hands of inmates.

This is the fact sheet on criminal records maintained by the state patrol which gives more details.

  • No law prohibits a prisoner from being in possession of information (such a law is unlikely to survive energetic judicial review) .... book bans in several states/prisons notwithstanding.... Dec 2, 2023 at 19:18

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .