Tennessee State Penitentiary

Penitentiary / Tennessee

Tennessee State Penitentiary is a former state prison that operated from 1831 to 1992 near Nashville, Tennessee.


The Tennessee state legislature passed three acts to establish courthouses, jails, and stocks in 1796, and subsequent acts followed 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 in Nashville, but only $2,000 was subscribed.

In 1819, Governor Joseph McMinn suggested that a loan from the State Bank be made to fund the construction of a prison. 1 2 It was not until 1829 when the general assembly appropriated $25,000 for the construction of such a facility on Church Street, 1 2 with construction beginning in April 1830. 1 The new 200-cell state Tennessee State Penitentiary was dedicated by Governor William Carroll on January 1, 1831.

An additional 32 beds were added in 1853, and by 1858, the prison boasted 352 cells. 1 But by the late 19th century, the penitentiary had become woefully overcrowded, plagued by a lack of beds, medical care, and sanitation. The state legislature voted to construct a new 1,000-bed prison in 1893. 1 2

A 1,200-acre plot was selected along the Cockrill Bend of the Cumberland River northwest of Nashville. 1 The new 800-cell Tennessee State Penitentiary, patterned after the Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York, opened on February 12, 1898. Besides two cell blocks, it included an administration building, a hospital, two factories, a warehouse, and a working farm. 1 2

The new prison admitted 1,403 prisoners on the first day of operations, creating immediate overcrowding concerns. 1 The original facility was reused as an overflow jail but it was soon demolished, with salvageable materials from the demolition was used in the construction of various outbuildings at the new prison. 1

An adult female cell block was added in 1930, followed by the opening of the Western Tennessee Penal Farm in Lauderdale County in December 1937 to alleviate overcrowding issues. 1

A coal-fired power plant, designed and engineered by Hart, Freeland & Roberts, was constructed in 1947 by Foster & Craiceton. 7

Riots and Disturbances

  • In 1902, 17 prisoners blew out the end of a wing of the prison with explosives, killing one inmate. 1 2
  • Several years later, a few inmates took command of the segregated white wing and held it hostage for 18 hours.
  • Several others took control of a switch engine and drove it through the prison gates in 1907 in an attempt to escape.
  • Inmates staged an unsuccessful mass escape in 1938.
  • Riots occurred in 1975 and 1985.


In 1983, several current and former prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, claiming that the Tennessee State Penitentiary was severely overcrowded, and had inadequate sanitation and ventilation. 1 2 6

Preparations began on replacing the antiquated penitentiary after the lawsuit and a court ruling found it to be overcrowded and unsanitary. Following mass riots that occurred throughout the state prison system in 1985, 1 the state passed the Comprehensive Corrections Improvement Act. A federal judge then 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

Governor McWherter launched a $300 million building campaign in 1987 to construct new prison beds and update existing facilities. One of the first facilities to open under the rebuilding program was Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in 1989 to directly replace the Tennessee State Penitentiary.

By February 1992, the penitentiary had only 215 inmates. 5 The last inmate, Billy Sadler, was escorted out with the governor on June 26 and was transferred to a brand-new, $30 million special needs prison. 4

It was estimated that demolishing the Tennessee State Penitentiary 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 former prison. 3

A tornado that touched down overnight caused considerable damage to the former prison on March 3, 2020.


  1. Tennessee State Prison. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. 26 Feb. 2007.
    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.
  3. “Titles with locations including Tennessee State Penitentiary, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.” Internet Movie Database. 4 Dec. 2008. Page.
  4. “A prison’s last day.” Tennessean [Nashville] 27 Jun. 1992: 1. Print.
  5. “Prison demolition may cost millions.” Tennessean [Nashville] 25 Feb. 1992: 5B. Print.
  6. “Don’t relive prison crisis.” Tennessean [Nashville] 19 May. 1992: 8A. Print.
  7. Plaque.