East TN News
East TN News

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Originally published 11/20/2016

Republished 2/9/2019

Click on any picture to enlarge it.


Somewhere in these beautiful Tennessee hills there's a building.... or rather... an entire complex, called Brushy Mountain Prison... and we're going to find it...

The closer you get to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary the further from civilization you become...

Abandoned stores, abandoned trailer parks and burned out homes become common. They once thrived off prison employees coming and going with death in their eyes and lunch pals filled with whiskey.

The roads get narrow and the mountains get steep and then you just find yourself at the gates of hell, thinking... "this is it."

The prison closed down in 2009 but the stories, the legend and the mystery remains.


If you asked me to choose one word to describe the experience that you're about to witness in pictures, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Creepy, intimidating, spooky, frightening, exciting, fascinating and sad come close to summing it up, but the experience didn't satisfy my curiosity, it fueled it and I wanted to know more...


The Birth Of Hell is Rooted in Greed


Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (prison), also known as Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, and also nicknamed "Brushy," was finally built in 1896.

It is made from the very stone of the mountains that surround it and by the very prisoners that would inhabited it.

The main building, which housed the prisoners, is a medieval fortress, which was meant to intimidate the visitors, locals and prisoners themselves.

It remains intimidating to this day and when I stepped onto the grounds I hesitated about getting near it. I don't scare easily but my heart was racing and I kept telling myself that I didn't come all this way to back down to a damn wall.

It sits comfortably in a valley and is surrounded by steep mountains. Some say the reason it became the location is because the tough terrain made it impossible to escape, but the legend goes unconfirmed. A more likely reason is: those mountains held the valuable product called "coal" and the state of Tennessee was looking to increase its revenue...

The Alcatraz of The South, as some have called it, came to be when the coal mining companies were searching for ways to increase their profit by utilizing free prison-labor. The misleading plan was: the state would lease-out the prison-labor to local coal companies in Anderson and Morgan Counties.

Brushy Mountain Prison was built in the shape of a cross to satisfy the Christian locals who protested a prison being built near their property and stated that only Christianity could rehabilitate a sinner. What they never understood is: the prison wasn't about rehabilitation. Brushy was home for the criminals that the other prisons didn't want and couldn't handle and it was all about money...

When the miners organized and resisted the idea of handing their jobs to cheap prison-labor, the state decided to utilize this free labor themselves and got into the mining business. They began mining operations on, and around, prison property. The prisoners were given quotas and if they didn't meet the quotas they were severely beat via whips. Many inmates died of black-lung and were buried at a cemetery near the prison.

In 1967, after 70 years of state-mining, when a rock-slide killed two prison inmates who were working the mines, the new and more-liberal warden - Lane Russell, decided to close the operation down and the mines have remained closed ever since.

The Famous Occupants of Brushy...


When James Earl Ray escaped Brushy Mountain in 1977 the prison found themselves under an enormous amount of political pressure. Big-city media swamped the tiny unincorporated town of Petros, TN and the FBI sent 50 agents to investigate.

While the press was making the prison warden and the guards look like a bunch of idiot hillbillies, the FBI showed up in suits and tried to take over. The prison guards resented it and had spent their lives hunting and hiking the hills so they wanted to be in-charge of the manhunt.

As tension grew and the guards refused to cooperate with the FBI, the FBI suspected and accused them of helping Ray to escape.

As word spread throughout the surrounding counties many people would leave their cars and trucks in parking lots with the keys in the ignition and the gas tanks filled, to help Ray escape... if he were to stumble upon the vehicles. This was done because many believed he was framed in the assassination of Martin Luther King and many others felt he was a hero to white-supremacy.

Compounding the original suspicion about the guards helping Ray, when he was eventually found under a pile of leaves, 4 miles from the prison, he had a map of the area, with the mountains. He certainly didn't buy it at the local convenience store and many suggested that at least one of the guards, who knew the mountains so well, had made it for him.

Topping the story are the facts that James Earl Ray was well-read, intelligent and all of the guards liked him. Most of the prisoners also liked him.


One day a baby deer just waltzed into the prison and began poking her curious nose around.


This deer, which the inmates would name Geronimo, became the most powerful source of counseling ever witnessed in the US prison system. She softened the hearts of even the most hardened and violent criminals. They would sneak her food and talk to her as if she were human and some opened up and told her the stories they never shared with anyone.

The prison staff left Geronimo alone. She became so loved that relocating her would've started a riot.... so, she'd find a vacant cell, hop up into the bunk and make herself at home.

For most prisoners - the deer was seen as a source of comfort representing themselves. Why would something so free and so beautiful decide to make a hardcore prison her home? It was a bad decision filled with horrible mistakes.... just like they had made, and it was proof that not everyone who winds up in this hell is hopeless.

Most prisoners grow up in communities and households where they feel unloved and unwanted. They then proceed in a society that prejudges them and disposes of them. Now they had a place in the midst of the most hardened, violent and vicious human beings in the country, while finding acceptence and love for the fist time in their lives, from a wild deer named Geronimo.


James Slagle was doing time at Brushy Mountain for murder and decided to study the physics of the human body in-order to pass the time and keep his mind focused on the positive aspects of life.

For 16 years of prison life he practiced yoga and could eventually contort his body into the oddest positions anyone had ever witnessed... He'd show off his talent to the guards who would stare in amazement as he would reduce his body into a tiny ball of flesh and bones no bigger than a handheld toolbox.

It's not the only thing Slagle was known for --- out of the blue he'd run into the nearest wall and dislocate his shoulders while everyone who witnessed his antics wrote him off as a lunatic.

But -- Slagle had a plan all along..... and one day he packed himself into a box and shipped himself to freedom.


Brushy Mountain... Tomorrow...


The property has been purchased from the state by three wealthy investors who have a plan to turn the prison into the most unique tourist destination in the country.


The prison itself will be made safe to enter and, for a price you'll get guided tours throughout.

Two of the buildings outside the prison will be used for distillery to make moonshine and whiskey.

The outside prison grounds will include a stage to hold concerts and festivals. There will be picnicking facilities, campgrounds, RV parking, gift shops, a bed and breakfast, a restaurant, a museum, hiking tours, a stable, an orchard --- and more.

I wanted to get there before they came in and changed it all... so that's what I did.




John M Disque is an American journalist and photographer specializing in politics and social issues.

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