Located minutes from downtown Nashville, Tennessee, the Tennessee State Penitentiary is a former state prison that operated from 1831 to 1992.
In 1796, the Tennessee state legislature passed three acts to establish courthouses, jails, and stocks, and subsequent acts were passed for the establishment of small jails in county seats.1 In 1813, the legislature authorized the use of voluntary contributions that would go towards the construction of a state penitentiary, but only $2,000 was subscribed.
Governor Joseph McMinn suggested in 1819 that a loan be made from the State Bank to fund the construction of a prison, but it was not until 1829, when the general assembly appropriated $25,000 for the construction of a facility on Church Street in Nashville.1 2 Construction of a state prison began in April 1830 and was finished on January 1, 1831.1 Dedicated by Governor William Carroll, the new facility included 200 cells, a storehouse, hospital, warden’s residence and miscellaneous structures.
Governor Carroll was also responsible for spearheading criminal code reform, eliminating the use of whips, brands and stocks on prisoners.1
The state appropriated construction of 32 additional cells in 1853, and by 1858, capacity had increased to 352 beds.1
The Tennessee State Penitentiary had become overcrowded by the late 19th century, with the complex plagued by a lack of beds, medical care and sanitation.1 In 1893, the legislature voted to construct a new state facility.1 2
A 1,200-acre plat was selected along the Cockrill Bend of the Cumberland River northwest of Nashville.1 The new Tennessee State Penitentiary, patterned after the Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York, opened on February 12, 1898. It consisted of 800 single-occupancy cells in two cell blocks, short of the 1,000 that was originally proposed.1 2 It also included an administration building, hospital, two factories and a warehouse, along with a working farm.
On the first day of operations, the new penitentiary admitted 1,403 prisoners, creating immediate overcrowding concerns.1
The original prison on Church Street was reused as a secondary prison and later demolished in 1898.1 Salvageable materials from the demolition was used in the construction of various outbuildings at the new prison.
In 1930, an adult female cell block was constructed.1 To alleviate overcrowding, the Western Tennessee Penal Farm was opened in Lauderdale County in December 1937.
Because of severe overcrowding issues, inadequate sanitation, deficient ventilation, among other charges, several ex-prisoners and prisoners filed a class action lawsuit in 1983.1 2 6 In a landmark ruling, In 1982, federal District Judge L. Clure Morton declared the Tennessee prison system unconstitutional and appointed a special master to oversee the state’s progress on prison reform.5 6 Following mass riots that occurred throughout the state prison system in 1985,1 the state held its First Extraordinary Session on Corrections and passing the Comprehensive Corrections Improvement Act of 1985. Shortly after, federal District Judge Thomas Higgins capped the state’s inmate population and set a deadline of June 30, 1992 for the state to bring the prison system into compliance.6
In 1987, Governor McWherter launched a $300 million building campaign to construct new prison beds and update existing facilities.6 One of the first to open was Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in 1989.
By February 1992, the Tennessee State Penitentiary had only 215 inmates, decreasing to 125 by March.5 On June 26, the last prisoner at the Tennessee State Penitentiary, Billy Sadler, was escorted out with Governor Ned McWherter.4 That’s when a $30 million special needs prison, designed for sex offenders and mentally and physically handicapped inmates, opened for 586 prisoners.
It was estimated at the time of closure that demolishing the prison would cost between $850,000 and $2.5 million.5 Post-closure, ten movies, including “The Green Mile,” “Last Castle” and “Bring Me Down” have since been filmed at the prison site.3
Riots and Disturbances
The new prison was not immune to chaos.
- In 1902, 17 prisoners blew out the end of one wing of the prison with explosives, killing one inmate.1 2
- Several inmates took command of the segregated white wing and held it hostage for eighteen hours several years later in a riot.
- In 1907, several prisioners took control of a switch engine and drove it through the prison gates.
- Numerous inmates attempted a mass escape in 1938 but were unsuccessful.1 2
- There were also several notable fires, including one that destroyed the main dining hall for the inmates and two riots in 1975 and 1985.