Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary: The Abandoned Prison in Tennessee

Nicknamed the “End of the Line,” the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary housed some of society’s worst people. The historic landmark was home to murderers, rapists, robbers, and men serving prison sentences of up to 200 years. However, the prison was abandoned and now serves as a popular tourist attraction, thanks to its history and strategic location.

History of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Established in 1896, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary wasn’t intentionally designed to be a prison; it was a coal mine erected to cushion Tennessee’s economy after the Civil War. One of the biggest problems with most coal mines at the time was that they relied on residents who were paid meagre wages. As a result, the workers would strike frequently, which led to the formation of a convict lease program that eventually bore the Brush Mountain State Penitentiary.

After the Coal Creek War, the state of Tennessee built the Brushy Mountain Mine and Prison. Its location was carefully identified by a team of geologists who thought the surrounding mountainous terrain made the facility safer. In the onset of 1896, Brushy Mountain State opened its doors to around 200 prisoners.

What Were the Conditions for Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary Prisoners?

When it started, the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary inmates were tasked with building a railroad spur and the prison itself. Underperforming prisoners were beaten severely, the prison was filthy, and the conditions triggered health conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and typhoid.

Although Brushy State Mountain Penitentiary never housed any death row inmates, many died prematurely. The wooden buildings would often fall apart, leading to grave injuries.

By 1931, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary had 976 prisoners, although the facility was designed to accommodate a maximum of 600 prisoners. This worsened the situation. To accommodate the growing crowd, the state of Tennessee implemented a plan to build a new prison, this time using concrete rather than wood. The prisoners were asked to mine sandstone from a nearby quarry to create a new cross-shaped prison that was four storeys high. An 18-foot stone wall also surrounded the prison. It looked better, and the conditions were more “comfortable”.

Up until 1969, the sole purpose of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was to provide prison labor. The same year, the prison received 100 beds to house fewer offenders. This lot wasn’t mixed with the hardcore criminals and was accommodated outside the walls. They were tasked with community jobs such as assisting the local fire department.

The Deer Incident at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

As with most prisons, there were few positives to talk about when referring to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. However, in the early 70s, a deer fell into this prison. Surprisingly, the inmates received him warmly and turned him into a prison pet. They named the deer Geronimo and introduced him to prison life. It didn’t take long before Geronimo started chewing on unlit cigarettes.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary Temporary Closure

In 1972, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was temporarily closed after the guards went on strike, complaining about weak security and poor conditions. The prisoners were transferred to Nashville, and Geronimo followed them shortly afterwards.

Four years later, the prison was re-opened, but nothing changed. If anything, they got worse because of the ongoing racial tension. In 1982, a group of white inmates attacked the guards, took their weapons and attacked their black rivals, killing two in cold blood. Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary built a chapel the same year, and hundreds of inmates turned to God for redemption.

Why Did Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary Close in 2009?

Brushy Mountain State Prison in 2009.

Although no official statement was published by the authorities, it is believed that Brushy Mountain State Prison was closed on June 11, 2009, because the facilities were outdated, inefficient, and expensive to maintain.

The 59 inmates left at Brushy Prison were transferred to a new prison called the Morgan County Correctional Complex. A closing ceremony was held at the prison’s gymnasium. The mood was very somber due to the memories the guards, staff, and management had experienced working at the facility.

What Movies Were Filmed at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary?

Over time, the Mountain State Penitentiary has been the go-to location for filmmakers. Movies like “The Green Mile” and scenes from “Walk the Line” were shot at the facility. Its castle-like structure, location, and general prison setting made it an ideal filmmaking location. However, when it was abandoned, the structures decayed and fell apart, making it risky for production companies to operate there.

Who currently owns the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary?

This prison is a property of the Morgan County Economic Development Board. But it was leased to Pete Waddington and his business associate, Brian May.

Did Anyone Ever Escape Brushy Prison?

In 1977, James Earl Ray and six other prisoners escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. He was, however, recaptured after a 54-hour search.

Which Famous Inmates Were Imprisoned at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary?

Apart from James Earl Ray, the person suspected of killing popular activist, Martin Luther King Jr., other infamous inmates to be housed at Brushy include Byron Looper, the man who killed Senator Tommy Burks. There was also the Fast Food Killer Paul Dennis Reid, who murdered seven people.

The Current State of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

When it closed in 2009, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was abandoned for almost nine years. In 2012, a businessman called Pete Waddington thought of turning this historic prison into a tourist destination. Good as it was, it took ages for the idea to be implemented; it wasn’t until 2018 that the Brushy Mountain State Prison was opened as an official tourist destination.

The prison structures, such as cells, cafeteria and showers, are massively worn out. The managers also added a distillery to boost the number of visitors touring the abandoned facility. Today, the Historic Brushy Mountain State is a functional tourist attraction that brings thousands of visitors annually. Most of the structures were left to preserve the experiences prisoners had, and ex-guards often led the tours. Here are more pictures of how the facility look/looked like.

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