Take a Tour of Tennessee’s Most Notorious Penitentiary

Among historical prisons, Alcatraz, Attica, and San Quentin may garner all the media attention, but the U.S. has experienced far worse. Eastern Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary may have been the worst of them all and the one you’ve likely never heard of. Now, you can explore its sordid past on a self-guided tour that’s dark, shocking, and fascinating.

“Brushy” opened in 1896 as a convict-lease prison. Through the revolutionary concept, the state leased its prisoners to local mining companies for a pittance compared to the wages being paid to professional miners at the time. The program lasted only a short while before local laborers revolted. A bloody battle war was fought and many on both sides died in small arms shootouts. Ultimately, the program ended but prisoners’ sentences were no less agonizing and inhumane in the years that followed.

Conditions inside were abhorrent, at one time compared to those in Siberian prisons. At its worst, it held 30 percent more prisoners than it was designed for. Disease — particularly syphilis, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and pneumonia — was rampant and medical treatment was all but nonexistent. Prisoners and guards frequently settled scores through brutal violence, sometimes leading to death. All were forced into hard labor (cruelly enough, to fortify the walls around them) and work-related “accidents” were frequent.

In its 113-year history, the prison was home to some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Escape attempts were uncommon; none were ever successful. The most infamous involved James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, and six other inmates who attempted to hop the back wall in 1977. One was shot dead and the rest were rounded up and returned to confinement within 72 hours. The north side of the prison abutted a massive natural stone wall, while an 18-foot hand-carved stone wall surrounded the rest. For many, especially those serving life sentences, there was quite literally no escape.

Brushy Penitentiary opened its doors to public tours in August 2018. The grounds feature a variety of interactive displays, a documentary film room, and fascinating relics from the prison’s history, including homemade tattoo guns and the ladder Ray used during his ill-fated prison break. Former guards are on-site to answer visitor questions and provide color through their first-person accounts. If a day-time tour isn’t exciting enough, paranormal tours are also available, during which guests can wander the grounds until after midnight or even stay overnight in the prison.

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