Tennessee State Penitentiary

Tennessee State Penitentiary

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






History

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.

Closure

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.


Gallery






Further Reading


Sources

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  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.

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47 Comments

  1. I was a nurse there
    I made a tape that stopped a riot in 1985. There are good people and bad that are still there.Why would you want to celebrate their sufferings?I see the dead. Let them alone. They do need someone to go and cross them over. You will be sorry for what you bring to your home.

  2. It was probably around 2012 when me and a friend went and explored the site. I drove by the empty gaurd shack and parked out front broad daylight.
    There was an opening in the wall along the side allowing access in, the main building was fairly run down and somewhat intact. Going through one room there was some old medical equipment that looked torturous and experimental possibly. As soon as I stepped foot in this room I could feel the spirits and evil. I would never go into this room again and I do not say this lightly.
    I came across an office with old letters inmates had written,some titled “what I would do with 5 days of freedom”
    This was some very moving reading and I left everything as I had found it.
    This was a building that came from a time of great architecture but we should also never forget that horrible conditions and things happened here. This is not a happy place,there are many spirits trapped here.

  3. I must have missed the original posting about the prison. Thanks for reposting it.

    If you have a chance to get further east Knoxville College’s campus is nearly abandoned and I think worth documenting as a HBCU. If any administrators still exist they actually might be glad to have a professional come in and document the grounds. Also — any idea if the old Antioch College campus is still abandoned? Thanks for all of your hard work documenting so much of the area in and surrounding Appalachia.

  4. Knew a george davis in the main prison ln the early 70’s because of him i ended up at tpw at the same time don’t how much time he got but as a first timer i got 3 to 10 don’t want to see him just want to know how much time he got

  5. After my graduation me and my sister and some friends went into what seemed to be the medical ward it was really neat it’s 3 months later and me and a large group of friends tried to do it again but there was some in the group that were a little too paranoid and afraid to get caught the first time was really cool we parked at the gas station through The truck stop hopped on the train tracks and went up on the hill down towards the wall to a big opening and went into
    The 2nd building it was alright we went through about every room actually just got back from there tonight and we attempted to slip through the fence but a van rolled past so us being 18-19 year olds we scattered like roaches I am very determined to go into the main prison there is small activity but at night and have watched several you tube videos over it hopefully me and the fellas can get in there one day if anyone does get into the prison document it and put it on you tube it’s not fair such a gnarly piece of tenneseee has to be locked away from us adventurous types

  6. Overcrowding and asbestos it is sad to see old buildings crumble and decay a lot of neat things to see in thi s world

    1. How were you able to get in? I tried accessing through bomar Blvd and there was a guard gate..I played stupid but didn’t see any way around in ;(

  7. Why did they shut it down an not use for inmates? I live in Arizona and have family in Georgia and I want to see it when I go back to visit..

  8. My brother Shon was at the walls. I visited once as a child. You all that want to go; you better be shot gun sure and heaven ready. That place was violent and the conditions were deplorable. Evil was there. My brother wrote to me of people screaming at night and people acting animal and cannibalistic. A guy bit off a man’s ear and ate it. If you are looking for the paranormal u will find it. That type is strong. Hope you know what to do when you do. Thank God my brother was paroled. 27 years inside.

  9. Question for anyone that may be able to answer. A piece of metal was found in Manchester, TN that has the words TENN. STATE PRISON 1955. It is blue in color, has white writing on it. It also has some more letters toward the bottom of the metal but is to hard to make out what they are. It has a hole on each corner, assuming it was screwed or riveted to something. The odd thing about it is the fact that it was found in woods in Manchester, TN, which is roughly 70-75 miles away and some 61 years later. I wanted to post pictures of it but could not, so instead put it on youtube and the link to it is below to look at it. If anyone happens to know what it is or has any good ideas and how it would have ended up in woods 70 miles away feel free to leave replies.

    1. Hi Mary,

      I am making a documentary about an African American poet who was incarcerated in TSP during 70’s for bank robbery. The film is about his life and how he rehabilitated himself through writing. There is a section about his time there and I’m looking for other people who could talk to camera about their experience during the same period. If your husband is interested in helping please let me know.

      Many thanks

      Mark

      1. Man I totally inderstand what you mean I might be able to post a video on YouTube about this place sometime this month or maybe in October me and my uncle have decided that we would go and check this place out sometime in the middle of the night to try and to see some ghosts or paranormal activity but we don’t know where specifically we could go in through where we won’t get caught do you maybe have an idea of where that could be? You could email me if you do at kianadaboss1011@gmail.com. Thanks!!

    2. Hello Mary,
      I am actually doing some research on The Tennessee State Penitentiary during the 1970’s- 80’s. I saw you mentioned in your post your husband would answer questions. I thought I might reach out and ask if he would be comfortable answering a few questions about his time there? If not, I totally understand.
      Thanks,
      Anna
      amurabito95@gmail.com

  10. I am looking for records on a Tracey or Tracey he was housed with my father that was in the walls around 1982 I believe and the went back to prison again he is my God Father last known to live in Chattanooga

      1. The Federal Courts held that the ENTIRE prison system in TN was unconstitutional (only time an entire system was taken over by the federal courts), appointing a special master to oversee the system for many years. That was how bad the entire TN system was, but “The Walls” in Nashville was considered to be the worst part of a terrible system. The place was built for 800, but had over three times that many when I was there in the 1980s through closure in 1992. To avoid continuing sanctions, especially after violating several court orders and the consent decree, the state agreed with the federal court order to NEVER AGAIN use The Walls to house prisoners. The place was overcrowded, extremely violent (even for a prison…had more violence than prisons in South & Central America, Asia, and Africa), understaffed, untrained staff, problems with lead paint and asbestos (they knew about it even the in the 1980s, long before “discovering” it in 2012), unsanitary conditions, inadequate medical and mental health care…the list can go on and on. Just look up the findings in the Grubbs v. Tenn. federal lawsuit.
        If you lookiloos and “more adventurous types” want to know about prison, then commit a crime and plead guilty under the condition that you will serve time. You won’t get a taste of what The Walls (or Brushy Mountain) was like, but Fort Pillow Prison is still open for you to do some time. Conditions there have probably improved, but you could get the general idea — and maybe even talk to some “old timers” who are still around.
        I wish those “knuckleheads” at Dreamworks had damaged the place to the point of collapse. The true knuckleheads were the many state officials (from wardens to governors) who knew of and oversaw such a cruel and corrupt system and spent millions of state dollars fighting the Grubbs lawsuit instead of spending the money to alleviate the daily horror instead of perpetuate it.
        There is/was nothing grand, majestic, magnificent, neat, gnarly, cool, or any of the other superlative adjectives used about The Walls. It was a place of misery built with the sweat and blood of forced prison labor. Regardless of your opinion of prisoners, INNOCENT men died behind those walls, most of very unnatural and violent means. It should be treated like Carthage, razed to dust and the ground salted so nothing ever would grow there. To feel different is to vicariously revel in the misery of the tens of thousands of men who suffered there.
        Didn’t know a Charles McMillan in my time there. Certainly, there were decent staff, some who even tried to make the lives of the prisoners better. But, the idea of prisoners donating blood for him is a bit farfetched…prisoners were encouraged to “donate” blood at the prison “blood bank”, though prisoner health care never improved because of it.
        I find most of these postings a bit troubling. What “fun” or “enjoyment” can come from visiting closed prisons, jails, concentration camps or other state instruments of torture and abuse?

  11. I went there in 1975 for a armed robbery conviction of a drug store young and dum I was 19 years old my prison number was 75334 it was a different world seen many people die in there was a real violent place like our government the prison used the divide and conquer technique kept us fighting among ourselves so we didn’t see the reality of our situation in other words they breed you so you became institutional and if you did get out they wanted u to return cause it was all about the dollar. Luckily after 17 years inside and 17 years on parole I’m a free person and I’m 60 years old now . The sad story is I hurt no one in the robbery but it cost me that many years of my life in that hellhole the red building it showed was the classification building when I went in. At that time brushy mountain was closed down and Tennessee only had 3 prisons walls fort pillow and had just opened turney center. So if anyone would like to know about that place feel free to contact me

  12. I did time there and as far as being locked up it was like s city within a city. It was nothing like you would see them depict prison life on tv.

  13. I drove up there yesterday just to take pictures outside the fence. The armed guard out front was completely humorless about it. Wouldn’t even let me take pictures from well outside the fencing because he couldn’t “allow me to take pictures on state property”…..I asked if he could point me in the direction of somewhere I could stand and take pictures NOT on state property and my semi-joke wasn’t appreciated. Not sure why you aren’t allowed to take pictures of a gigantic, beautiful old building from 500 yards (at least) away.

  14. 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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

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

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

    1. 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!

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