By Mike Steely
So much violence, sadness and history is woven into the place but it’s a place you’ve got to visit and experience for yourself.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary opened on August 4th as a tourist attraction and if you’ve ever wondered what prison life was like over the last 100 years a visit to the large facility is well worth the trip to Petros, Tennessee. The little community is less than an hour’s drive from Knoxville and entering the old prison is certainly taking a trip back into time.
My wife and I went there recently and spent a couple of hours touring the sad and scary old facility. What those prisoners and guards faced each day was interesting and frightening. How inmates were treated seemed cruel but considering the place housed the worst of the worst their restrictions are understandable.
Our tour was conducted by Wayne Davidson, a Kingston man who spent 25 years in prison in Tennessee and seven years incarcerated in Georgia. Davidson, who said he is still on parole for life, is a likable and knowledgeable person who has memories of Brushy Mountain that are deep and often he finds himself talking about things he’d long forgotten.
“Every three steps you take at Brushy has a story,” Davidson said.
When he and another guide, retired prison guard Bill Harvey, get to talking they reminisce about incidents there that never were publicly discussed.
Owner and manager Pete Waddington said he leases the prison from the Morgan County Economic Board for $1 per year. The property was passed to the county by the state and for the years since the last prisoners were moved in 2009, the facility sat empty and deteriorating. Most of the prisoners were moved to the Morgan County Regional Correctional Complex a few miles away across the mountain near Wartburg.
Waddington is still restoring the place, building by building, and has the main prison open for self-guided or group tours seven days a week. He’s added a gift shop and restaurant and a moonshine still-house that produces “The End Of The Line” whiskey.
Although open only a few weeks Waddington says they are averaging about 1,600 visitors each weekend and about 80 per day during the week.
Obviously many visitors want to know about the prison that housed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer and Davidson tells many stories. He was trying to help convicted assassin James Earl Ray when Ray was stabbed multiple times by several black inmates. Ray survived that attack and tried, three times, to escape, once making it over the wall and was finally captured in the deep into the mountains behind the prison.
There were other notorious prisoners at Brushy Mountain including Knoxville’s boxing champion Big John Tate.
Davidson says he became a barber while at Brushy Mountain, cutting hair not only for prisoners but also for the warden’s family and guards. When he was released he opened a barber shop but could not stay out of trouble.
When a preacher’s wife told him about the prison opening as a tourist attraction he learned about applications for guides being taken and applied. There are currently three former guards as well as former inmates serving as tour guides. Debbie Williams, a former correction officer and counselor, opened a museum there before the prison closed and operates that section of the prison yet today. In the basement of the museum is the “Hole” where disruptive prisoners were held in isolation.
The prison was built by prisoners who also mined coal nearby to fire the furnaces and heat the drafty facility. At one time there was a guard labor strike there and the prison was closed for four years before it reopened. When it closed Brushy Mountain was the longest standing maximum security prison in the state. At the end of its operation it had ninety six beds in the maximum security wing.
You can take a brief self-guided tour for only $12 per person, $7 per child or take a full guided tour for only $20. The prison is open every day from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Don’t forget to catch the movie there at the museum and take a look at all the items confiscated from prisoners.
Walking through the huge prison gives you a peek at the cramped cells, the metal bunks, and even some of the beautiful primitive artwork produced by prisoners. The Dining Hall walls are decorated with large paintings by inmates and ask your guide to tell you about the murder that took place there. Or ask them about the prison cemetery nearby.
Stop back by the gift shop and restaurant on your way out of the prison and pick up a tee shirt, gift item, or mug.
You can find Historic Brushy Mountain State Pen online or call them at 423-324-8687. Petros is located north of Oliver Springs just off Highway 62 on Highway 116.