tennessee state penitentiary

Tennessee State Penitentiary

The History of Tennessee State Penitentiary

The Construction and Design of the Penitentiary

The Tennessee State Penitentiary, located in Nashville, was built in 1898 and operated until 1992. The castle-like structure was designed by architect William B. Ittner, who was influenced by the Gothic Revival and Romanesque Revival styles. The construction of the penitentiary was a response to the overcrowded conditions at the previous state prison, which was located near the Cumberland River. The new penitentiary was built to accommodate 1,500 prisoners and featured cell blocks, workshops, a chapel, a hospital, and even a farm.

The Early Years

During its early years, the Tennessee State Penitentiary was known for its harsh conditions and brutal treatment of inmates. The prison implemented a “convict leasing” system, where prisoners were leased to private industries, such as coal mines and railroads, as a cheap labor force. This system led to high rates of illness, injury, and death among prisoners, and it wasn’t until 1896 that the practice was finally abolished.

The 20th Century Developments

Throughout the 20th century, the Tennessee State Penitentiary underwent several changes. In the 1930s, the infamous electric chair, known as “Old Sparky,” was installed, and more than 100 executions took place over the following decades. The penitentiary saw many expansions and improvements, including the construction of additional cell blocks and facilities, but overcrowding and deteriorating conditions persisted.

See also  Charles Bass Correctional Complex

Closure and Legacy

In 1992, the Tennessee State Penitentiary closed its doors due to a federal court order, which declared the facility as inhumane and overcrowded. The prisoners were transferred to a newer, more modern facility called Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. Today, the abandoned penitentiary stands as a symbol of a dark chapter in Tennessee’s history.

Life Inside Tennessee State Penitentiary

Daily Routine of Inmates

Inmates at the Tennessee State Penitentiary followed a strict daily routine, which included waking up early, performing manual labor, and attending educational programs. Meals were served in a communal dining hall, and recreational activities were limited. The penitentiary was known for its harsh disciplinary measures, which included solitary confinement and the use of the “sweatbox,” a small, windowless cell where prisoners were subjected to extreme heat and humidity as punishment.

Famous Inmates and Incidents

The Tennessee State Penitentiary housed several notorious criminals and was the site of various high-profile incidents. Among the famous inmates was James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., who was briefly incarcerated at the penitentiary in the late 1960s. Another well-known inmate was Byron “Low Tax” Looper, a former Tennessee politician who was convicted of the murder of his political opponent, State Senator Tommy Burks.

Incidents at the penitentiary included numerous escapes, riots, and uprisings. In 1975, a riot broke out, resulting in the death of one inmate and injuries to several others. In 1985, a group of inmates took over a cell block and held hostages for 22 hours before the situation was resolved peacefully.

Tennessee State Penitentiary in Popular Culture

Movies and TV Shows Filmed at the Penitentiary

The Tennessee State Penitentiary’s unique architecture and eerie atmosphere have made it a popular filming location for movies and television shows. Some notable productions that have used the penitentiary as a backdrop include “The Green Mile,” “The Last Castle,” “Ernest Goes to Jail,” and several episodes of the TV series “Nashville.”

See also  Northwest Correctional Complex

Urban Exploration and Haunted Tours

The abandoned penitentiary has also become a popular destination for urban explorers and paranormal enthusiasts. Many visitors have reported strange occurrences and ghostly sightings, leading to rumors that the penitentiary is haunted. Though the site is not open for regular public tours, occasional special events and ghost tours are organized by the Tennessee Department of Correction.

The Future of Tennessee State Penitentiary

Preservation Efforts

Efforts have been made to preserve the historic Tennessee State Penitentiary, as it stands as a testament to the state’s penal history. The Tennessee Preservation Trust has included the penitentiary on its list of most endangered historic sites in the state. Local groups and preservationists continue to advocate for its restoration and adaptive reuse.

Potential Uses for the Site

Educational Center

One proposed use for the Tennessee State Penitentiary is to transform it into an educational center, where visitors can learn about the history of the prison system in Tennessee and the United States. This concept could include interactive exhibits, guided tours, and workshops.

Tourist Attraction

Another possibility is to turn the penitentiary into a tourist attraction, capitalizing on its unique architecture and storied past. This could involve opening the site for guided tours, hosting special events, and even converting parts of the facility into a museum or art gallery.

In conclusion, the Tennessee State Penitentiary represents a fascinating and complex part of Tennessee’s history. Its story is a reminder of the evolution of the penal system and the need for ongoing reform. As efforts continue to preserve and repurpose this historic site, the penitentiary will continue to captivate and educate future generations.

See also  West Tennessee State Penitentiary


  1. When was the Tennessee State Penitentiary built? The Tennessee State Penitentiary was built in 1898.
  2. Why did the Tennessee State Penitentiary close? The penitentiary closed in 1992 due to a federal court order declaring the facility inhumane and overcrowded.
  3. What movies and TV shows were filmed at the Tennessee State Penitentiary? Some notable productions include “The Green Mile,” “The Last Castle,” “Ernest Goes to Jail,” and episodes of the TV series “Nashville.”
  4. Is the Tennessee State Penitentiary open for tours? The penitentiary is not regularly open for public tours, but occasional special events and ghost tours are organized by the Tennessee Department of Correction.
  1. What are some potential future uses for the Tennessee State Penitentiary site? Potential uses for the site include an educational center, a tourist attraction, a museum, or an art gallery.

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