The Horrific History Of the Tennessee State Penitentiary

Posted by junketseo in Gatlinburg Haunts
The Horrific History Of the Tennessee State Penitentiary - Photo

Just six miles from downtown Nashville on a dark, curving, back-country road lies one of the most notorious prisons in American history. US Ghost Adventures closely examines some of Tennessee’s most haunted locations. In the 19th century, the American prison system was considered the ideal labor force. Now referred to as the prison factory system, workers could not unionize, change jobs, or move away. The Tennessee State Prison acted as a workplace where the boss had absolute control over the workers. Shifts were longer than any job on the outside, and brutal discipline could be meted out at any time for any reason.

Key Points Timeline

  • When the original Prison opened in 1831, it was immediately reported as overcrowded and inhumane. Over a century later, it was finally closed for precisely that reason.
  • Sentences included backbreaking labor, the profits of which were used to support the Prison.
  • Infamous criminals such as James Earl Ray (Killer of MLK) were housed here during the mid-20th century.
  • After the Prison was closed, it was used as the set of several Hollywood movies, including Walk the Line and The Green Mile.

A History of Inhumane Conditions

The original Tennessee State Prison opened in 1831 and housed Tennessee’s most dangerous criminals. The old Prison was deemed inefficient, leading to the construction of a new jail. This new Prison opened in 1898, had 800 cells, and admitted 1,403 prisoners on the day it opened. The issue of overcrowding was not solved but perpetuated.

The Prison stayed open until 1992 when a federal judge finally declared the conditions unconstitutional. During the nearly 100 years of operation, the Tenessee State “Pen” saw fires, riots, and over 100 executions. It was home to dangerous criminals and innocent victims alike.

The Cost of Being Incarcerated

The entire inmate population was contracted out to private businesses for slave-wage labor in 1866. Prisoners worked 16-hour shifts, slept in solitary cells, and could not speak to one another. The prisoners labored in workshops, warehouses, factories, and even an onsite farm. Their sentence was nonstop, intense, backbreaking labor, and unending isolation.

It was the beginning of America’s for-profit prison system. A system that has been responsible for countless wrongful arrests and still runs rampant with corruption and racism today. The Black population among prisoners increased from 5% before the Civil War to an astonishing 62% just a few years afterward.

In the 1840s, there was a rise in the use of prison labor; inmates were employed in the construction of the state capitol building in Nashville. Prison labor became so lucrative that the state prison became a revenue-generating system that competed directly with free laborers.

Not Just the Men, But the Women and Children Too

This jail housed men, women, and children. Children were often tried as adults for crimes, including stealing food, in the 19th century. In 1892 a women’s wing was built, but the massive overcrowding forced some women to remain in the male cell blocks. It stayed this way until the Prison was finally closed. The proportion of Black women in Prison was significantly higher than Black men in relation to whites, with all female prisoners in Tennessee in 1868 being African American women.

Children were housed with adults and faced corporal punishment if they acted out. A pre-teen boy incarcerated for stealing food decided to spend his days whistling while performing backbreaking labor. He was whipped by the guards and died of injuries sustained while ” on the job.”


In 1902, several prisoners blew out the end of one wing in an attempt to escape. The explosion killed one prisoner and injured several others. Two prisoners did escape; their names were never publicly released, but research concludes that they were never seen or heard from again. A couple of years later, a group of inmates seized control of the segregated White wing and held hostages for 18 hours before finally surrendering. In 1907, several prisoners drove right through the prison gates with a switch engine they had commandeered.

1938, during a mass escape, several fires were lit, causing severe damage to the aging structure. One particular blaze in the main dining hall burned for over an hour before it was completely extinguished. The dining area was destroyed and cost over one hundred thousand dollars to repair. Significant prison riots occurred again in 1975 and 1985. The violence and unrest inside these walls only ended in June 1992, when the facility was closed. 

The End of the Pen

The Tennesse Department of Corrections opened a new facility in 1989 to bring some relief to the staff at the main facility. The Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville boasted modern facilities and state-of-the-art prevention systems to safeguard against riots, fires, and escape attempts. The summer of 1992 marked the closing of the Nashville State Penitentiary. “As part of the settlement in a class action suit, Grubbs v. Bradley (1983), the Federal Court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Tennessee Department of Correction from ever again housing inmates at the Tennessee State Prison.”

The Ghosts of Tennessee’s Notorious State Prison

Known as “The Castle” in its heyday, the Prison has become even creepier since it was abandoned. The last three decades have not been kind to the former Prison. The paint has bubbled off the walls, the bars are all rusted as they swing back and forth, the walls crumble onto the floor, and the place is riddled with asbestos.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from going inside. Those who have done so have reported serious paranormal activity lurking around every corner of this abandoned facility.

There were over 100 state-ordered executions in this building, and it was the first to use the electric chair in Tennessee. Many others died diseased, malnourished, in a filthy cell alone. Some even chose to end their own suffering.

It is now an eternal prison for those who have perished within these walls. Dozens of souls are forever linked to this place where they lost their lives. The daring souls that have ventured past the gates have witnessed blood-curdling events. Bodyless screams echo through the corridors, and footsteps are heard near the electrocution room. Those put to death here seem to be reliving their last moments over and over forever.

Haunted Tennessee

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