‘Hell on Earth’
Being imprisoned with violent criminals in a remote, hard-knocks prison like the infamous Brushy Mountain Tennessee State Penitentiary is not something I would ever want to experience.
But it was fascinating to get a glimpse of incarceration at the castle-like Brushy Mountain that has come back to life as a tourist attraction, complete with a restaurant, distillery and outdoor venue for concerts and events — and it was one of the best tours I’ve ever taken.
The prison tour allows visitors to talk with a former guard, explore the cell blocks and walk the prison yard as we tried to imagine this “hell on Earth” slammer that operated from 1896 until 2009 in Petros, Tenn.
Thousands of murderers
Brushy Mountain housed thousands of murderers and other life-sentence criminals, like James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Byron “Low Tax” Looper, who was convicted of killing his Tennessee Senate opponent, Tommy Burks.
Brushy Mountain was known as the “‘end of the line” for prisoners like Ray, and the tour gives you an insider look at this maximum security facility.
The tour starts with an 18-minute documentary screening in the former prison chapel. The film features former guards telling graphic stories of inmates, the violence and what it was like spending years behind the 18-foot-tall walls.
The guided tours, led by former guards and inmates, take visitors through the cell blocks where they can see Ray’s final cell assignment, #28, and dozens of other prison cells.
The bare bones 8-by-10-foot lockups included a metal bunk bed, a toilet and a sink. They were sometimes shared by four men — two sleeping in the cell, while the other two worked in the coal mines, except on Sundays, when all four men would be confined to the Spartan cell.
You will also see the exercise yard, laundry room, showers, gymnasium, cafeteria and “The Hole” — one of the most powerful stops —where the most troublesome inmates were sent to endure scant food and cramped conditions for as long as 30 days in complete darkness.
Our guide, Bill Harvey, who worked at the prison as a guard from 1981-2002, ushered us into some of “The Hole’s” five 6-by-8-by-3-foot solitary confinement cells and turned off the lights to help us imagine what a prisoner would have experienced.
Harvey said “The Hole” inmates were provided two pots, one with water and one to use as a toilet. Brushy officials said “The Hole” inmates daily food ration was a bowl of “pureed nastiness.”
The chow hall was home to several stories of “stickin’s” and “stabbings,” Harvey said, including one of an inmate killing that involved a meat cleaver. There was another story of an inmate who was beaten to death in the cafeteria with a boat paddle.
Don’t miss the murals throughout the cafeteria, many of which were created by inmate Tim Cross, who Brushy officials said is out on parole and selling his artwork on Facebook.
The museum has display cases filled with confiscated knives inmates crafted from parts of their bunks — and even one carved from a toothbrush. It also showcases innovative methods used by visitors to smuggle in drugs for inmates, including a secret compartment in the bottom of a flip flop and a hiding place within the pages of a Bible. You will also see leg irons, handcuffs, ledgers of prisoner activities and several pieces of art created by inmates.
How Brushy became a tourist attraction
In 2012, Chattanooga entrepreneur Pete Waddington saw the prison on a charity motorcycle ride through Morgan County and immediately called his business partner, Brian May, saying, “You have to see this place,” and that they “had” to do something with it.
May and Waddington’s research found two of the fastest growing segments of the national tourism industry were prison tours and distillery tours.
The prison, which reopened as a tourist attraction in 2018, was originally on 286 acres in Morgan County. Two hundred acres were added to the adjoining Frozen Head State Park through an easement. Now, the 86 acres of the Brushy Mountain prison tract is owned by the Morgan County Economic Development Board and leased to May and Waddington.
They created a restaurant, gift shop and tasting room out of a storage building and built a distillery in an old boiler building, leaving most of the prison itself in its existing condition.
In Morgan County, where jobs are scarce, Brushy is a boon, with 48-60 employees and as many as 115 during special events.
“It has been a win-win for Morgan County,” said Lisa Collett, executive director of the Morgan County Economic Development Board. “We are a distressed county, and the (prison) tourism is wonderful.”
“People who come don’t expect it to be all of this,” May said.
The first year’s attendance was 40,000 visitors, and May expects 100,000 this year.
“People are surprised for this prison to be 100 years old and to be in as good a shape as this” he said.
Brushy Mountain facts
The penitentiary was built by prisoners in the 1930s after the original wooden building burned. The stone prison, built in the shape of a cross, was designed to house 450-600 inmates, but at times, it held almost 1,200.
The exterior and the 18-foot-tall walls surrounding the prison are built out of stone quarried on the prison property. Some of the walls are three feet thick.
The prisoners were all serving life sentences, until 1984, when Brushy became a general population inmate prison.
Until the late 1960s, Brushy inmates provided free labor to coal mines in the area. There was also a 60-acre working farm that supplied food for the prison.
When Ray escaped in 1977, he was gone for 54 hours before being captured in a manhunt led by the FBI.
One of the best stories was of inmate James Slagle, in for kidnapping and murder, who practiced yoga and packed himself in a box labeled “153 pounds of roast beef” that went out of the prison on a flatbed truck. He was captured shortly after his clever escape.
Going to Brushy Mountain State Prison
Where: Brushy Mountain State Prison is located in the mountains of Petros, Tenn., about 2 hours and 45 minutes from Nashville and 50 minutes from Knoxville.
Admission: Self-guided tours are $12 for adults and $7 for children 10 and under. On weekdays, at least one former guard is on hand during the tour to provide commentary and answer questions. On weekends, two former guards and two former prisoners are stationed along the tour.
You can also arrange for a $20 per person guided tour for 15 or more people by making online reservations. Most of the guided tours are at 9:30 a.m. and are led by former inmates or former prisoners.
There are paranormal tours from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for six people for $480. A paranormal tour from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. for 12 people is $1,500. The paranormal tours are 4-to-7 hours long. The customer can choose how long they want to stay in the prison.
There is a 10 percent discount for military and seniors.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., seven days a week from April through November. Allow at least an hour for a tour. The last ticket is sold at 5 p.m.
Distillery: The onsite distillery makes End of the Line Moonshine and will soon be making Frozen Head vodka. There are distillery tours and $5 tastings any time Brushy is open. If you buy a bottle, your $5 tasting fee is applied to the price of the bottle.
Restaurant: The Warden’s Table serves barbecue, burgers and salads at affordable prices. Most items are $12 or less.
Concerts: Last year’s Jamey Johnson concert, which drew 4,000 fans, set the stage for what the owners hope is a monthly concert series this year on the prison grounds. Dwight Yoakam will play a concert on June 19. There are also plans for a Brushy Rodeo July 5-6 and a car show in October. The owners hope to add an RV park and campgrounds.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel
The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org
Published May 24, 2019