The Knoxville News Sentinel has a short article noting the closing of Brushy Mountain Prison and raising the possibility that it be opened for visitors. Prison tourism has certainly paid off for some places. Alcatraz Island is on the short list of “must-sees” in San Francisco and Boston is about to open a hotel–jocularly named the Liberty Hotel–in the former Charles Street Jail. Then there’s this former prison in Oxford, England, where people can spend the night.
As interesting as Brushy Mountain might be to visitors, it has two strikes against it.
First, Petros, Tennessee, where Brushy Mountain prison sits, has its charms, but it is no San Franciso or Oxford. Petros is about as much in the middle of nowhere as you can get in Tennessee. While this made a dandy location for a prison, it’s not a very handy one for visitors, unlike, say, the old prison in Laramie, Wyoming, which is ten minutes off I-80. Brushy Mountain is on the way to Historic Rugby on the Cumberland Plateau and close by the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, but will a prison attract fanciers of Victorian architecture and wilderness folk?
That brings us to Brushy Mountain’s second affliction: its only famous inmate was one of the most despised felons of the 20th Century. James Earl Ray was the man who killed the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He escaped from Brushy Mountain in 1977–I helped cover his capture for The New York Times–but most of Ray’s admirers are either in prison or ought to be.
With no particularly famous inmates of the Bonnie and Clyde or Machine Gun Kelly type, and a not-to-die-for location, the cards do not look good for making Brushy Mountain a stop on the tourism trail. It might be a fantastic place for paintball, but that’s about all.
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