Brushy Mountain State Prison

May 24, 2015  •  11 Comments

Preface from Wikipedia.


Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary opened in 1896 in the aftermath of the Coal Creek War, an 1891 lockout of coal miners that took place in Coal Creek and Briceville, Tennessee, after miners protested the use of unpaid convict leasing in the mines. This labor conflict was eventually resolved in favor of the coal miners, with a bill passing the Tennessee state legislature to abolish the convict labor system, to be replaced by the Brushy Mountain Mine and Prison.  The mountainous, secure site was located with the help of consulting geologists, and Brushy Mountain convicts built a railroad spur, worked the coal mines on site, operated coke ovens, or farmed. At the end of all the state's convict lease arrangements on January 1, 1896, some 210 of those prisoners became the first inmates of Brushy Mountain.

The original prison was a wooden structure also built by prisoner labor. It was replaced in the 1920s with a castle-like building constructed from stone mined by prisoners from a quarry on the property.  As of 2008 Brushy Mountain was the oldest operating prison in Tennessee.

The prison is nearly encircled by rugged wooded terrain in a remote section of the Cumberland Plateau, adjacent to Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area. Escape attempts were infrequent and almost always unsuccessful. Perhaps the best-known escape attempt occurred on June 10, 1977, when James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., escaped with six other inmates by climbing over a fence. Ray was captured less than two days later in a rugged mountain terrain less than three miles from the prison.

The prison was closed in 1972 after a strike by prison guards protesting unsafe working conditions. It reopened in 1976.  Brushy Mountain was the only unionized prison in the state. The union worked closely with state legislators to improve the working conditions for correctional staff across the state. Under governor Lamar Alexander attempts were made to squeeze the union out of existence but his efforts were fruitless. Additional attempts over the years were attempted but they proved fruitless also. Many efforts to close the prison were attempted long before the 2009 closure. In 1998 Brushy Mountain Prison was administratively joined with Morgan County Correctional Complex. With the joining of the two institutions both prisons became unionized.

In the 1980s Brushy Mountain ended its long-standing function as a maximum security prison and assumed a mission as a classification facility.  In its final operations, it had a capacity of 584 and was used as the state's reception/classification and diagnostic center for East Tennessee. It housed all custody levels of inmates, although it retained a maximum security designation due to the ninety six bed maximum security annex contained within the prison walls. These ninety six beds were used to house the state's most troublesome inmates. The last warden was Jim Worthington.

The prison closed June 11, 2009.  Its functions were transferred to the Morgan County Correctional Complex. Morgan County officials hope to convert the facility to other uses, including a museum and a jail to serve Morgan and surrounding counties.

A small historical museum on the prison property displays old record books, photos, and news articles.


Met up with some friends for a day of photography.  After a couple of waterfalls we decided to head towards Brushy Mountain State Prison in Petros, TN.  We joined up with a few more friends in Wartburg and headed out.  After a few detours we arrived at the prison only to find the gates were locked and there was no way to get a decent shot of the prison.  Looking around, I noticed what looked like a service road cut into the hillside that continued towards the prison, but you had to negotiate (bypass) a large metal gate in order to get up on the cut.  I picked up Ronnie and off we went, around the gate, up the hill, and headed straight for he…..

We got more excited the closer we got, wondering if we would be the newest inmates at the nearby Morgan County Correctional Facility.  I parked the jeep so it could not be seen from the main road and we quickly got out and took a few pictures.  Thinking we only had minutes before the po po showed up, we hurried back to the jeep and started back.  

Brushy Mountain State Prison

Safe and sound back at the parking lot, but unsatisfied.  Ronnie said we should go to a nearby home and see what we could find out about getting “in” to the prison so off we went.  Since when do people ask about getting into prison?  I didn't say we were the sharpest bunch of tools in the shed.  Asking a nearby homeowner, we were told that no one really patrols the place and even though they could not give us permission it was probably okay to go in, so off we went.  Picking up Gail on the way in, around the gate and up the hill once again, but this time we drove right up to the front of the prison.  The others had joined us and we all began taking pictures.

It was nice to see most everything still intact and not vandalized yet.  No graffiti, receivers still attached to the phones, sinks, mirrors and lights not shattered to pieces. 

Bathroom Visitation View from Guard Tower Guard Tower

The main building was locked up tight.  Every door to the building and yard were secured with gates and cables, the kind you need a torch to cut.  However, most of the guard towers were accessible as were several of the other buildings on the grounds.  There were two external buildings with cells and a chapel.    After taking many photos of these buildings we decided to leave vowing to return after obtaining permission to enter the main building.


After making contact with someone from the new ownership of the prison, my excitement began all over again, being told that I would be contacted the next time he returned to the facility and would let me photograph inside the main walls.  Well, after bugging him for a few weeks I finally got access and was able to shoot inside for a short one and a half hours.  I arrived at the front gate and met up with my contact.  We drove back the single lane road and parked in front of the main building, after which he provided a short tour of the facility before leaving me to myself and thoughts about what it was like to spend time here as an inmate.  I could have done without his last piece of advice which was to watch out for snakes.  He said it was probably too early for them yet but they were all over the place, even the ceilings.  Like I said, "I COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT THAT".

Front Gate

I had little time to keep track of my progress throughout the facility.  There will be more images contained in this blog than normal, but I think you will enjoy them.  Let's start off with some cell block images.  

Cell Block Cell No. 41 Cell Block Cell

After walking quickly through the cell blocks on the upper and lower level searching for anything unusual inside the cells, I found a couple of interesting murals (let's just call them that for now) on the walls in a couple of cells on the lower level.

This first one would have looked much nicer before someone defaced it this year.  Now I'm not sure if the "SS" was part of the original artwork or not.  I'm guessing not, because it looks like the original might have been done in pencil and the other in ink.  The second image is one of my favorites and once again, I'm not sure if someone "added" a few days to this guy's timeline. The marks closest to me look like they might have been added more recently.  I'm not sure if the marks indicate the number of days he spent in prison or the number of times he used the toilet but either way, it was too long or too many.  These were the only two cells I found with any kind of markings, but I'm sure in my haste to get through the place I missed others.

Marking the Days

After walking through the cell blocks I came upon a large room with murals on every wall and column.  I was told this was the cafeteria and all the artwork was done by the inmates.


Next up, the laundry room, Chapel, and Solitary confinement.  Even though there has been some vandalism, it's been minimal and for that I'm very thankful.  My contact told me that no matter how hard they try to lock it down, people cut through cables, climb walls, and even camp inside.  I think it would be really neat to spend a night in one of the cells, but not alone.  

How would you like to spend some time in "The Hole"?  The stairs to the left in this first image below led to this forbidding deep dark place where many inmates did some definite soul searching. This room looked like it might be 5 ft wide by 8 feet long with only a few holes in the door for light to pass into the cell.  I had to use a large light source to illuminate this area and I don't think any amount of light could breach the outer walls to to find it's way into this area, nor do I think it would want to.  It was truly a place where only monsters were kept.  Ironically, these cells were directly under the building that housed the Chapel.  

Chapel The Hole Laundry Room

I wonder if the mailman was packing when he came to pick up the mail.









The new owners plan on turning this into a location with restaurant, water bottling facility, RV park, and other attractions.  I'm glad I was able to gain access before the restoration. The owner told me that Sci-Fi's tv show "Ghost Hunters" filmed here recently and others contact him daily for access.  I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to photograph this location.

I have many more images of the prison but will save those for another day.  


Until next time, Big Bear signing off.


mike b(non-registered)
is there anyway to find out what cell block and cell number someone was in at Brushy,,visited Brushy one time couple weeks ago,going back,but would like more info
Peggy Padgett(non-registered)
Thank you for the pictures. My grandfather spent 7 years there. I am not quite sure of the dates, but I believe it was the late 20's through early 30's.
Tami Webber(non-registered)
Enjoyed your blog and photos. My Stepbrother use to work there! I rode past this place last year via The Devils Triangle on motorcycle and was fascinated! Thanks for sharing!
Chuck Walker(non-registered)
Wow. Great pics and stories. I just learned that a man who was married to my G. Grandmother was sent there for the Murder of a man he had shot who later died of his injuries. Its a sorted story and we are told he died and is buried there in 1900. I have been trying to verify it. I guess I will have to visit this location to see if I can get access to any records they may have.
Thank for sharing.
Joe Guzi(non-registered)
Wow John, that's Wwaaaayy COOL! Nice work.
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