Tennessee – Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

We have served our time and been sprung.  Our visit to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary started last year when we were in Wyoming and Oregon on our way to Washington State.  Along our route were some remote towns and the only thing they had going for them from a historical/visitor’s standpoint were their penitentiaries…so we visited two in Wyoming (one was from the territorial period and the other after statehood, July 10, 1890) and another in Oregon.  They were fascinating but grim places with lots of stories.  Recently, one of Don’s local collector friends mentioned his visit to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary…something we had never heard of and of course we had to go.   

The day proved to be productive on lots of fronts: Don found a couple of things at an antique show; my computer was dropped off for its annual physical; I took photos of Clinton’s antique shops and will post a page of them…then we drove to the “pen.”  It is remote…way back in Tennessee coal country, surrounded by untamed forest and rugged mountain.  The prison is shaped like an upside down cross butted into a narrow cove. 

When we approached, the parking lots were overflowing with mud-spattered ATVs…shades of Deliverance.  We asked some of the riders if there was a special event that day and were told that there are hundreds of acres and miles of trails in the surrounding area and there are always a lot of riders using this as a destination.  There is also the End of the Line Distillery and the Warden’s Table Chow Hall offering food and moonshine in the first building, and they were doing a brisk business.  We viewed moonshine offerings and then bought entrance tickets for the prison. 

The bleak day and the remote setting did nothing to make us speed our steps as we walked toward Brushy’s crenelated facade with its curling rows of razor wire running along the tops of the walls. 

The original wooden prison was built by prisoners in 1896 and more prison labor quarried the stone and built this structure in 1934.  For 113 years Brushy was Tennessee’s only maximum security prison and it was finally decommissioned in 2009.  The prison came to life after the Coal Creek War.  Prior to this time there was no permanent statewide prison facility in Tennessee, and as was common practice in many areas, prisoners were leased out to labor in coal mines.  The state legislature eventually passed a bill that abolished the prisoner leased labor system and that is when Brushy came into existence. 

A welcome sign at the entrance did nothing to warm our spirits: “This stone-cold fortress bears witness to notorious and more than a few nightmarish deaths of some 278,225 tortured souls who entered its steel gates.  Welcome to Brushy, you’ve reached the end of the line.”

The interior was dark and more than a little dank from seeping moisture.  The walls were grey and crumbling.  We were directed to the museum where there was a short introductory film or we were free to wander as we chose on a self-guided tour.  As it turned out, we saw a group of people and a tour guide so we moved in closer to tag along. 

Wayne wasn’t your ordinary tour guide…he was a former inmate who had spent thirty-two years in and out of the place and knew it quite well.  His stories were fascinating and grisly.  He first walked through the iron gates when he was eighteen years old and within these walls he said he witnessed nineteen murders.  Over the years he had become trusted by both his fellow prisoners and the guards and was able to act as a go between.  One of his jobs had even been to read the prisoners’ grievance letters.  About 75% were frivolous (too little meat in the stew) but he tried to resolve issues that were relevant. 

For many early prisoners, a hanging or other execution would have been quicker and kinder that the life sentence they served.  The coal mine tortured and killed slowly with its heavy, demanding and dangerous labor; broken bones and other untreated injuries; and the brutal beatings at the whipping post and apparently elsewhere for quotas not met or other infractions.   The men worked twelve hour shifts and two men were assigned to each prison cot…no sense in wasting an empty bed…while one worked the other rested if you could find rest in these abysmal surroundings. 

Meals were eaten in the cafeteria where the scenic art (painted by some of the prisoners) on the walls belied the danger of this place where assaults were common and murder grisly, especially when executed by a meat cleaver.  Two guards patrolled the large room and two more observed, viewing through bullet-proof glass with gun ports for their .30-caliber rifles.  The guards had orders to fire warning shots, and if that didn’t quell the uprising, they were to shoot to kill.

Escapes were rare.  Once outside the walls, prisoners had miles of dense forest to navigate.  One slight and nimble prisoner practiced yoga for a year  and “with the help of coworkers he squeezed into two 18x9x9-inch boxes taped together and labeled ‘153 lbs of roast beef’ placed among food on a flatbed truck.”   Once loose of the box, he was spotted by an off-duty guard and returned to the prison.  When James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr., escaped over the wall, the warden simply ordered a road block and the prisoner was found in the woods within fifty-six hours.

Infractions of the rules resulted in isolation in “The Hole,” an unheated space under the prison laundry.  The 4x8x10-foot spaces were so dark that prisoners would go blind within days, and when they were released, they would need to be assigned guides to lead them around until their sight returned. 

After the tour we headed for the museum and sat through the brief movie.  As we were leaving Don asked two women who were seated in that area a couple of questions and we got way more than expected.  It seems one of the women was the great, great, great…granddaughter of the owner of the property upon which the original prison was built.  Her family has been involved with the pen forever, and she has spent years actively researching all things related to the institution.  Turns out the land was basically stolen from them by the state.  They were given papers stating that it was a 99 year lease and for this they received $20 and a hog rifle…and the promise that their family members would always have work at the prison.  It seems they agreed to this pathetic arrangement after they had already been twice burned out of their home, so they decided it was best to agree to the terms if they wanted to live.  The land was rich with coal and hence the prison and mine became a virtual “goldmine” for those in control. 

She told horrendous stories of the prisoners’ treatment in the mines and of the number of unacknowledged graves that have been discovered…with more turning up all the time.  The prison was closed in 2009 so a lot of this information is just becoming available, and now they also have access to the full property to begin searching for evidence.  The corruption and brutality at all levels and on both sides were shocking and it makes me happy to be able to crawl back into the lovely cocoon I live in. 

It was also interesting to hear our former felon talking about the difficulty police have today and his concern for them and their ability to do their jobs.  He talked as well about the almost universal belief the prisoners had that whatever had gone wrong in their lives was someone else’s fault.  Over the years he saw everything and in the end he took personal responsibility for his actions and “saw the light.”  After hearing the stories, this “road to perdition” seems like an unlikely place where one could find redemption.

On the way to Brushy Mountain we visited the antique shops in Clinton, Tennessee.   If you would like to learn more about the Pearl Market and see some of these shops, they will be in the next installment.

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