Tennessee State Prison

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


  • Name: Tennessee State Prison
  • Location: Nashville, Tennessee
  • Years of Significance: 1831, 1898
  • Status: Abandoned

[/atab][vc_accordion_tab title=”Further Reading”]

  1. Historical photographs of the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
  2. Old Tennessee State Penitentiary by blakewylie.
  3. Tennessee State Prison by David Scaglione.


  1. Tennessee State Prison. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. 26 Feb. 2007 Article.
    1a. Gossett, Larry D. “The Keepers and the Kept: The First Hundred Years of the Tennessee Prison System, 1830-1930 (1992).”
    1b. Gossett, Larry D. “Tennessee State Penitentiary, History of the Tennessee Penal Institutions: 1813-1940 (1940).”
  2. “Historical timeline (1700-2003).” Tennessee Department of Correction. 23 Feb. 2007 (.pdf).
  3. “Titles with locations including Tennessee State Penitentiary, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.” Internet Movie Database. 4 Dec. 2008 Page.

Administration Building

Cell Blocks C & D

Death Row

Health Clinic

Power Plant

Designed and engineered by Hart, Freeland & Roberts, constructed in 1947 by Foster & Craiceton.

Unknown Building


  1. The unknown building is the honor dorm, which was on the yard

  2. Do you have or let groups do Paranormal Investigations there and who do we need to talk to ?

    • Audry, I think you need to contact the current Tennessee Department of Corrections. They can tell you where all the records are kept. It stands to reason that at the time the prison closed, there would have been “lifers” that would have been transferred to the new prison. The records couldn’t have been deliberately destroyed. By now they should have been put on fish then loaded onto the computer.
      Good luck!

  3. I was wanting to try searching around this place on my vacation to Nashville and was wondering the legality of doing this? Anyone know?

  4. Does the owner give tours of this place or let any teams come in to investigate possible paranormal activity? Please reply. We will pay. :)

  5. The Prison is owned by the State of TN and still functions to some degree by means of storage and minor occupancy.The inside of the facility was officially shut down 2012 by Health Officials when high levels of asbestos we found. It truly is a magnificent facility.

  6. I just attended a private tour today for members of a private Nashville area historic preservation group. But the TDOC only provides these on rare occasions, so Ifeel very fortunate.. There are no public tours scheduled for this facility mostly due to the actual hazard it has become due to corrosion of much of its walls and insulated areas filled with asbestos. We only got to step in two very contained areas, one of which allowed us to see at all five tiers of C Block. The knuckleheads at Dreamworks that shot “The Last Castle” back in 2001 were given permission to paint the exterior and some interior parts for their film, but did not use the appropriate kind of paint. Instead, the paint they used allowed precipitation to buildup then freeze and literally corrode the brick and mortar exterior! Unfortunately, there was no recourse for TDOC against Dreamworks. Very sad. There are plans in the next decade for the state to invest funds to restore and renovate some of the prison to open it for public tours. But nothing definite has been announced to date, according to our TDOC tour leader.

  7. My husband is from Ky he makes the comment every time we pass ( I would really love to take a tour )is that any way
    possible ? I would love to do this for him he is such a loving, kind, hard working man.

  8. My grandfather, Charles McMillon , was an employee in this prison. He allowed my brother and me to set in the electric chair when we were about and years. old. It was an experience. He was well like by his work gang and other prisoners. Before he died, prisoners gave blood for him.

  9. Do they have a tour guide for the old prison,if so how do I go about applying for a tour.

  10. don’t attempt to enter the premises. I just did and spent 30 minutes with three police officers explaining why I was there. The building is not abandoned it is still in use there are just no prisoners being held there. If you enter the property without permission you will be cited

  11. Does anyone know if they offer tours? Or have a number to call and find out?

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