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John M. Dabbs

Historic Brushy Mountain Prison - Back Open for Business

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John M. Dabbs
John M. Dabbs
 2021-05-15

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Brushy Mountain State PenitentiaryJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Last month BMG reopened Brushy Mountain State Peniteniary for business. It's been a while since anyone set foot inside the prison. The main gate remains under the watchful eye of employees, as visitors and residents see the fate of men.

Gates back open

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Main Gate - Brushy Mountain State PrisonJohn Dabbs/Photographer

The gates to Brushy Moutain State Prison opened again for business in April. In fact, they reopened for business through the Brushy Mountain Group in 2018. The once maximum-security prison is now home to a historic tour of the facility and grounds, the Warden's Table diner, and End of the Line Distillery.

Pete Weddington of the Brushy Mountain Group has done a great job with the property. They've repurposed part of the Power House, creating an event pavillion. The pavillion is suitable for weddings and other parties. Private events can also be held in other locations on the grounds.

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Concert Stage - Upper Exercise YardJohn Dabbs/Photographer

In the upper exercise yard, you'll find a large stage in the corner. BMG has a concert schedule that will captivate fans. People actually come here to see the bands play, as there are no performers for a captive audience since the prison emptied its cells.

Impressions

Pulling into the main parking area across from the gift shop to buy tickets and get the lay of the land, you find yourself in an open valley surrounded by mountains on either side. The huge smokestack from the old power-house is a prominent structure. The other half of the power house is transformed into a suitable venue/pavillion. Up the hill from the power house, you see the distillery and work on another structure, where I'm told plans are in the works to sell fireworks from the buildng eventually.

You have your option to walk or drive to the main prison facility. I walked, taking in everything I can. The fortress shines with regal flair in the sun. The battlements and walls are remniscent of a castle, complete with watch towers. The iron bars and signage are visible as I made my way closer.

Nothing regal about it upon closer inspection. This isn't a castle, it's a fortress. The building is definitely able to keep an armed group of marauders from breaking someone out, or an armed group of prisoners from easily breaking out.

Looking at the cell blocks, D-block, and even the more modern cells built in the back of the facility - it is obvious nobody can easily get out of here - guards or no guards. I do not even think the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park could get out here.

Beginnings

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was more than a prison. It began as a coal mine for the state. it started after a bloody war where Coal Creek minors were forced into retirement after the state began a convict lease program. The program provided cheap prisoner labor with workers who knew to take orders.

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Mining CartJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Such prisoner leasing programs were used throughout the southern states. State governments were unable to construct prisons to house and board prisoners on their own. The program allowed the states to partially fund their prison programs. It was an exploitation of the 13th amendment, allowing criminals to be punished via involunary labor.

The Coal Creek War

The Tennessee Coal Mine in Anderson County used contract prison labor. This led to the Coal Creek War. Local miners attacked and torched the prison, stockades, and mines. They loaded the prisoners and guards onto a train going out of town.

The minining companies brought them back. State officials sent troops in to protect the prisoners and guards. Months of fighting between the groups left many dead.

Officials realized the costs of security forces for the prisoners and guards were cutting into any finanical gains, and allowed the contracts to expire. Legislators passed a law to construct Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary - Tennessee's first maximum security prison.

Alcatraz - south

The prison was located in the middle of wilderness. Brushy Mountain prison was the last place you'd want to be. The state's first maximum-security prison held the state's most violent murderers, robbers, rapists and gangsters for more than a century.

The hard-time convicts were serving long sentences. Many were sentenced to 200 years or more. It was certain, many men who made their way in to serve time would never walk out. Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was the end of the line.

Death row

Many visitors are not suprised to learn the Tennessee electric chair - Old Smokey - used to be at the prison. They are suprised that it was only stored here while the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville was being renovated.

While many died at Brusy', it never had a death row. Most of the deaths were at the hands of other inmates. A wire screen was placed against all of the catwalks, when one prisoner was knifed and two other prisoners threw him over the walk - only to land on two guards.

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Cell BlockJohn Dabbs/Photographer

In the roaring 20s, the prisoners serving time at Brushy spent thier days mining coal. Taskmasters whipped them with thick leather straps - urging them to dig quicker. At night the prisoners were stacked like cordwood in the original wood buildings.

The prison was dangerously overcrowded. In 1931 the inmate population was 976. That was about 300 inmates over capacity. Conditions were so bad, many compared it to the USSR's (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) prisons in Siberia.

The State of Tennessee found a simple solution to the problem - they drew up plans for a new structure. The new prison building would be made of reinforced concrete. Inmates would mine sandstone from a local quarry to build the new facility. The new building was made in the shape of a Greek cross.

Standing four-stories tall, the new building had battlements on top. By 1934 the prison was surrounded by an 18-foot stone wall. The new prison facility was safer, and more sanitary.

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The Wall and Guard TowersJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Transitions

Mining continued at the heart of Brush Mountain Prison into the 1960s. In 1969 100 beds were added outside the perimeter wall and the facility was reclassified "Maximum-Security". The "outer" cells were for minimum-security prisoners. These inmates were used in work programs serving in the community.

Brushy Mountain's reputation as the "end of the line" for the worst prisoners became a legend. Those convicts who committed horrendous crimes or were no longer welcome in other prisons were transferred to Brushy Mountain. It was never pleasant for them.

The infamous "hole" in the basement of the laundry facility was finally shut down and D-Block was built. They built it where the old "death house" site, where the bodies of inmates were kept until returned to their families. D-block housed the baddest of the bad. They were isolated from other prisoners in cells smaller than the regular 2-bunk cells. The D-block exercise yards were steel cages outside the cell-block. These were about four times the size of the cell, but here they could get some fresh air a a bit of exercise.

Prisoners continued to work and die in the local mines for many years. Things didn't change until Lake Russell became the warden. Russell stopped prisoners from mining.

This was the most infamous era of Brushy’s history, a time when the assassin James Earl Ray was transported here, tried to escape, failed, got stabbed. In ‘72 the guards went on strike, demanding security improvements, and Brushy was shut down for four years.

So they improved some things and reopened Brushy in ‘76, but friends, let me tell you, it was still Brushy. Tensions between black inmates and white inmates threatened to overwhelm a system that just didn’t seem capable of containing the evil of this place.

In ‘82, the powder keg ignited. Seven white inmates held guards hostage at knifepoint. They took the guards’ guns, found four of their black rivals in their locked cells, and opened fire. They killed two. The other two managed to survive by hiding in the corner behind their mattresses.

People said things couldn’t get any worse, and maybe, finally, they were right.

Infamous inmates

James Earl Ray

Far from the meanest or most feared, James Earl Ray is acquainted with the prison's long history. He made just as big of name for himself in his escape attempt at Brushy as he did confessing to King's assasination.

James Earl Ray confessed to assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray was a career criminal. He escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary in a bakery truck. He was incarcerated there for armed robbery. He arrived at Brushy in March of 1970. He immediately had the urge to escape.

A year into his stay at Brushy, he was able to remove a cinder block from his wall and squeezed through the opening to escape. The attempt didn't pan out, as it led to the steam plant - he would have been cooked alive. The following year a guard caught him with a makeshift saw.

His big break came in 1977, when he joined six others climbing over a the wall using a 16 foot ladder, made of pipe. The Feds swarmed the area to help state, local, and prison officials apprehend the escaped felon. Morgan county was full of G-Men, U.S. Marshalls, Tennessee Highway Patrolmen, and guards from other state prisons. He was apprehended a few days later - only a few miles from the prison.

He recalled his attempted escape during an interview with a college student at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville. He said the escape was the worst decision he'd ever made in his life. The guy who talked them into breaking out didn't know anything about the area or the outdoors. Ray cursed the rocks, briars, and brambles of Brushy Mountain. He said he was never so glad to be caught.

He was attacked severely and stabbed multiple times while at Brushy. Ray left Brushy for good in 1992 and died in Nashville six years later at the state facility.

Prison reform

A decade after the prison closed it was reimagined - reformed, if you will.

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Entrance Sign - Brush MountainJohn Dabbs/Photographer

The Brushy Mountain Group came together in 2013, bringing good businesses and resurrection to the facility. The BMG has been working hard ever since.

The county's leaders and people were instrumental in making the transition work. Tours, concerts, the distillery, and restaurant have all played out favorably. This comes from the hard working and successful mindset of the locals.

Terrible sins and carnage occured within the walls. The people working here, and the prisoners serving time at Brushy Mountain built a legacy and a legend known across the nation.

Closing thoughts

I've never been to a prison before. I highly recommend a visit for any family with troubled children who may be contemplating a life of crime. It would make me rethink my plans if I leaned that way.

The historical significance is more than worth the trip. The diner and gift shop, complete with tasting bar and distillery goods, definitely give the trip more credence to the average traveler.