Jerry Summers: Brushy Mountain Penitentiary - Alcatraz Tennessee?

Sunday, May 31, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

What was once Tennessee’s most infamous prison that included inmates such as James Earl Ray, killer of Martin Luther King, and Byron “Low Tax” Looper, assassin of State Senator Tommy Burks, is now a popular tourist stop at Petros, in Morgan County, 50 miles from Knoxville and 100 miles from Chattanooga.

Two Chattanooga entrepreneurs, Brian May and Pete Warrington, leased the penitentiary and re-opened it in 2018.  The stone structure was built in the 1930s by prisoners after an 1896 wooden building burned. The prison was built from stone dug from a quarry on the property.  Those prisoners also built a railroad spur, worked on coal mines on the site, operated coke ovens or farmed.

The selection of Brushy Mountain in the rugged hill country was based on the goal of making it a maximum security prison that would be very difficult from which to escape.  This turned out to be true because the escape plans of James Earl Ray and six other inmates who climbed over the fence in 1977 were thwarted by the rough terrain.

They were apprehended two days later a few miles from the prison.

One temporary escape story was of convicted kidnapper and murderer James Slage who had become a student of yoga and packed himself in a shipping crate labeled “153 pounds of roast beef” that went out of the prison on a flatbed truck. Unfortunately for him, his absence was soon discovered and he was apprehended.

Initially the prisoners were convict lease laborers but when those arrangements expired in 1896 210 of those prisoners became the first inmates of Brushy Mountain.

In 1972, after a strike by prison guards protesting unsafe working conditions, the prison was closed that year and re-opened in 1976.  Governor Lamar Alexander attempted to defeat the group that was the only unionized prion in the state but was unsuccessful as the bargaining unit worked hard with legislators in Nashville to improve working conditions.

In the 1980s as more prisons were built due to overcrowding, Brushy changed from a maximum security prison and became a classification facility with a reduced inmate capacity of 584. It became the East Tennessee reception/classification and diagnostic center.

Although it was no longer a maximum security institution, a separate annex within the prison temporarily housed up to 96 beds for Tennessee’s most troublesome inmates.

Ultimately the prison closed on July 11, 2009 and its functions were transferred to the Morgan County Correctional Complex which it had been administratively joined. 

For literary fans Brushy has been referred to in several movies, television shows and novels.  Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lector in the film, “The Silence of the Lambs” offered to inform on the Serial Killer “Buffalo Bill if they “would send him to Brushy”.

In the popular 1991 John Grisham novel, “The Firm”, the brother of Mitch McDeere, played by Tom Cruise, was an inmate at Brushy Mountain, named Ray McDeere.  The late singer John Hiatt’s 1988 song “Tennessee Plates”  main character laments about being in “the Tennessee prison up in Brushy Mountain….making Tennessee plates.”  Making license plates was one of the vocational jobs at Brushy.

Morgan County elected officials were unsuccessful in converting the old prison to other uses including a museum and jail to serve Morgan and adjoining counties. 

Up to 2012 the prison set vacant and abandoned until Chattanooga entrepreneur Pete Waddington saw the facility on a charity motorcycle ride through Morgan County. Astounded by what he saw and recognizing the possibilities, he contacted his fellow Chattanoogan Brian May and leased the Brushy Mountain property and they have turned it into a tourist attraction.

Normally from April-December the tourist center is open, but due to the coronavirus it was temporarily closed until getting the okay to re-open from the governor.  Because of the lack of heat due to the cold weather, the facility is not open in the winter.

Tours with guides who are either former guards or inmates are available or you can tour on your own. If you are really brave and love ghost stories a paranormal tour is available for groups up to 12 if you can stand being locked up from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. or for how long you can stay in the prison.

The “Warden’s Table” is a restaurant serving barbecue, salads, hamburgers, etc. and there is also a gift shop.

An 18-minute documentary runs continuously at various locations three times an hour. 

May and Waddington have provided an amenity that even Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay can’t match.

Their “End of the Line” Tennessee Moonshine and Frozen Head Vodka are legally distilled at the prison and available for testing and purchase.

The museum includes a variety of “old records, photos, news articles and prison artifacts” that were confiscated from prisoners.

In 2018 a concert drew in 4,000 fans and the owners hope to schedule a monthly music series. 

            Information can be obtained about Brushy at:

            Phone – 423-324-8687

            Location – 9182 Highway 116, Petros, Tennessee

            Details – https://tourbrushy.com/

Who knows Brushy may someday be known as “Tennessee’s Alcatraz!”

P.S. The facility is now open for business.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  


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