The Tennessee State Prison, located minutes from downtown Nashville, Tennessee, was designed to instill fear into the prison population, its layout and appearance is that of a fortress, containing the prisoners within thick, stone masonry walls along the banks of a wide and swift Cumberland River.
Plans for a central Tennessee penitentiary dated to 1815, when the state Senate committee recommended construction despite various heated political debates. No decision was made on a specific location until 1829, when the general assembly appropriated $25,000 for the construction of a facility on Church Street in Nashville.1 2 Construction began in April 1830 and was completed on January 1, 1831. The prison contained 200 cells, a storehouse, hospital and living quarters for the warden, but owning to its small size, it quickly became overcrowded. Female inmates were housed above the administration building.
The legislature appropriated construction of 32 additional cells in 1853, and by 1858, the capacity had increased to 352 beds.1 The expansions did little to alleviate other issues of the prison, including medical care and sanitation. As a result, the legislature voted to construct a new state penitentiary in 1893 to alleviate concerns of those concerns among others.1 2 The new prison was to include 1,000 cells and workshops to provide employment for all prisoners, and a separate structure for female inmates.
A 1,200 acre farm was decided upon 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 and consisted of 800 single-occupancy cells in two-cell blocks, well short of the 1,000 that was originally proposed.1 2 Also included was an administration building, various offices, warehouses, hospital and two factory structures, and a working farm outside of the stone permitter. On the first day of operations, the new penitentiary admitted 1,403 prisoners creating immediate overcrowding concerns.
The original prison on Church Street was demolished later in the year.1 Salvageable materials from the demolition was used in the construction of various outbuildings at the new site.
The prison was not immune to chaos. In 1902, 17 prisoners blew out the end of one wing of the prison, 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 inmates 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.
Because of severe overcrowding issues, among numerous other problems, several ex-prisoners and prisoners filed a class action lawsuit (Grubbs v. Bradley) in 1983. It was ruled that the Department of Correction should never admit any new prisoner into the walls of that state prison due to its severe overcrowding, inadequate facilities and deficient ventilation.1 2
The Riverbend Maximum Security Institution opened its doors in 1989 to house incoming inmates. The Tennessee State Penitentiary closed its doors in June 1992.1 2
Ten movies, including “The Green Mile,” “Last Castle” and “Bring Me Down” have since been filmed at the Tennessee State Prison.3