Exploring East Tennessee: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

I haven't written a Discovering East Tennessee post in a long time. I meant to do one in March but never got around to it. I will, eventually, but this post is about Brushy  Mountain State Penitentiary.
When I was growing up, those four words would send chills down my spine: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. It's called "The End of the Line" because it's where convicts were sent when other prisons couldn't handle them. They knew if they were sent there that there was no way out. It closed down in 2009 after 122 years of housing bad guys...the worst of the worst.
Sign that reads "Dangerous since 1896"
The State of Tennessee sold the property to Morgan County. Developers had an idea; a way to bring revenue & jobs back to the county. This little community of Petros had many members who worked at the prison. Families had been employed there, kind of like a family business. When the State shut down the prison, the community definitely felt it. But now, new life is breathing into this facility.
Sidewalk leading to the front entrance
If you ask me, the plan is ingenious. Take a run-down, historical prison, fix it up, get a still going, and sell tours & moonshine. All in a beautiful setting.
Prison against a mountain background
There were escapes from the prison, but there are also stories of escapees giving themselves up to get back in the walls because of the terrain around it. One side of the prison didn't have a fence. It had a steep wall of mountain rock instead. (The fence was put up for the tourism.)
Side of mountain that acted as a natural fence
James Earl Ray (who was convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.) did time at Brushy Mountain. He escaped in 1977 but was found 50-something hours later. I remember when that happened, and I remember being scared.

The old maintenance building is now a gift shop and restaurant.
picture of gift shop
We ate once we went in, although it was a little pricey for a sandwich and a side. I would recommend stopping in Oak Ridge or Oliver Springs for a quick bite before heading to Petros.
There is a museum where you can watch a 20-minute movie about the prison. The tour is self-guided; however, there were 2 former prisoners and former guard on the grounds when we were there. One of the former prisoners walked around with a group of visitors and told some stories of what it was like to be a prisoner at Brushy Mountain.
2 red doors open in a small area with no windows
The Hole
White brick building with a cross on it
"The damnation of many an evil man,
the salvation of a humble few."
After walking to The Yard, we went back to the Courtyard and listened to the former guard talking to a few people. Someone asked him if he knew if something had happened in the prison, and he said that he only wanted to know what he needed to know, and that was it.
Main building with the gym on the right

Open courtyard with buildings surrounding it
The Courtyard
2 concrete buildings with window slats
Maximum security prison built within the prison. The whole prison was once all maximum security but in the years before its closing housed some prisoners who did not require maximum.

Field with a guardhouse in the background
The Yard

Outdoor stage beside a mountain wall
Stage for concerts in The Yard

Manhole with lock
The manholes had locks on them to deter prisoners from attempting to escape

Outside of cell building in a prison

4 floors of fenced hallways in prison
4 floors of cells
 Picture of a prison cell with door closed

Spider web drawn on a metal desk in a prison cell
Graffiti on a desk
 Prison cell with graffiti including cross on a white wall

Tile half wall with shower heads in a prison
Shower at the end of the cells
 row of cells in a prison

towel taped on a metal stool inside a cell
A towel used as a cushion on the hard stool
The site has already held one concert, and there are plans for a campground. Paranormal tours are also available. At one time there was an electric chair on the premises but it was never used. It was sent to the state pen in Nashville. Even though, there were many prisoners who died at the hands of other prisoners (and guards) as well as disease (especially in the early years).

brick wall with razors above with a guardhouse in the corner
I think the $12 it cost for admission was well worth it. We went on a Sunday, right when it opened for the day. As we were leaving, there was a good crowd. The history was fascinating, and having the former prisoners and guards hanging around was a definite plus.
If you find yourself around the Oak Ridge area, it's definitely worth a visit to the "Alcatraz of the South". I love discovering East Tennessee, and Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary has always been a curiosity, but I certainly didn't want to visit while it was open as a penitentiary! Stop at the Gift Shop for some samples of moonshine. There are 9 different flavors (including "regular"). We were able to chat with the distiller for a couple of minutes...really nice guy!
3 bottles of moonshine with the Brushy Mountain logo on a counter
We left with 3 bottles: 2 are gifts and the other one will probably be in our fridge for a year...at least!
Coming to East Tennessee for a visit and looking for some "off the beaten path" places to explore? You'll want to check out the posts in my Exploring East Tennessee series. Oh, and check back from time to time...we'll do more exploring (which means more posts!).
Pinterest pin for blog post: picture of the penitentiary with the post title under it.

If you found this post interesting, check out the series that a local tv station aired.
Interested in visiting? Click here for information.
Even though he is dead, seeing the headlines for when Jame Earl Ray escaped still gives me chills. Read about it here.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I love history and architecture and possibly haunted things. :)
    I think this is a great use of the old prison. Thank you for sharing it with us, Mary!
    Have a blessed weekend. :)

    1. Thank you, Suzanne! I don't know if I'll ever be brave enough to take the Paranormal tour. I think the idea is genius & a great way to help out the community!

  2. Looks like a really fun and educational tourist spot. I'm glad the facility was repurposed in a way that supports the community.

  3. It was, Annie! They have a lot of big plans for the place. When it closed it impacted so much of the community; it's good to see community members being employed and being able to make a living.

  4. Good job with the review, and thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Very interesting! I'll have to tell hubby about this.


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