The Tennessee State Penitentiary, also referred to as the Tennessee State Prison, is a sight for… sore eyes?
Located just minutes from downtown Nashville, the Gothic-inspired administration building and guard shacks were designed to instill fear into the prison population. The layout resembled more of a fortress than anything else that was built at that time, with thick, stone masonry walls keeping the prisoners from escaping into the local community.
Plans for a penitentiary in central Tennessee dated to 1815, but it was not completed until 1831. The new prison contained 200 cells, a storehouse, hospital and living quarters for the warden, but the prison soon became overcrowded. By 1858, the capacity had increased to 353 beds, but this did little to alleviate the concerns of overcrowding. In 1893, the state legislature voted to construct a new state prison, designed to hold 1,000 inmates on 1,200 acres, which was completed in 1898.
Of course, Tennessee was eager to use the new prison, and admitted over 1,400 prisoners on the first day – creating immediate overcrowding conditions. And these issues only got worse – besides severe overcrowding, there were sanitary issues that led to several riots over the years. It was not until 1983 that a class action lawsuit was filed, which resulted in the prison being closed to any new inmates due to “overcrowding, inadequate facilities and non-existent ventilation.” The “hellish and barren prison” closed its doors in 1992.
But in the nineteen years since its closure, the building has been occupied only by filmmakers and a handful of photographers. And the condition of the prison has not fared for the better. Moisture intrusion has taken a toll, with extensive mold and mildew infestation throughout, and asbestos piping that is deteriorating. Structural issues have not yet compromised any of the main buildings, although several guard towers are in poor condition.
There is currently no anticipated reuse of the Tennessee State Penitentiary site. It is not listed on any historic register, national or local. And it cannot be used as another prison or jail due to the court’s ruling. While not in any danger of being demolished, the buildings will continue to deteriorate. Heat and humidity take their toll after only just a few years of closure, and this prison has been sealed since 1992. With its location close to downtown Nashville, reuse of the building should be a more pressing matter although its very specific design and construction doesn’t aid in its ability to be renovated into other purposes.