To assess the prevalence and risk factors for colonization with Staphylococcus aureus in inmates entering two maximum-security prisons in New York State, USA, inmates (N = 830) were interviewed and anterior nares and oropharyngeal samples collected. Isolates were characterized using spa typing. Overall, 50·5% of women and 58·3% of men were colonized with S. aureus and 10·6% of women and 5·9% of men were colonized with MRSA at either or both body sites. Of MSSA isolates, the major subtypes were spa type 008 and 002. Overall, risk factors for S. aureus colonization varied by gender and were only found in women and included younger age, fair/poor self-reported general health, and longer length of prior incarceration. Prevalence of MRSA colonization was 8·2%, nearly 10 times greater than in the general population. Control of epidemic S. aureus in prisons should consider the constant introduction of strains by new inmates.