Opening Brushy Mountain Prison for tourists?

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.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

29 Responses to Opening Brushy Mountain Prison for tourists?

  1. russ says:

    it dont matter who wants to come tour brushy we dont care about that. brushy has gave jobs to people all over the area for years, its family thing around here. brushy means alot to people around here. good guards have died here. kids grew up on the fields around it. brushy means alot to us so u can stay out we dont care if anyone tours it we will keep for ourselves.


      It is the ignorate bliefs of people like you that have held Tennessee back for so long. Come out of the BACKWOODS. Understand that no one is trying to knock your LITTLE TOWN, but the truth is the truth. Without something replacing the prison, the economy that you are so proud of, will be “DIRT POOR” more so then what it is now. SO YOU SHOULD CARE.. GROW UP…HOW OLD ARE YOU. Alot of people there have died, NOT ONLY THE GUARDS. IT WAS THE BELLY OF THE BEAST! And they should have closed it down hundreds of years ago. The guards saw, looked over, and sent people after people all the time. How many times did the Guards close their eyes, to rapes, torture, killings. And these are the things that the guards also did themselves. On top of all of that it was a racial hell hole. Are you one of the Guards that did the constant beatings, and rapes, and killings they were blamed on other inmates? If you know so much about “Brushy”, then you are one or the other. Which one are you, the Guards that were killing, raping, and beating people ( sometimes to death) or a Inmate?
      Know what you are talking about. There was nothing Great about “Brushy”!
      Do you have a secret that you don’t want to come out?

      • tennessee traveler says:

        you sir that wrote the above comment about the other gentleman being…RACIST, IGNORATE REDNECK from PETROS, TENNESSEE….you need to be more understanding of the way small town life is here in tennessee!! you sound like what we call a KNOW-IT-ALL around here. i sir am no ignorate redneck, i am a very educated lady but i do happen to live close by and that prison is a big part of the culture around here! many families have for generations supported their children by working there and it holds a dear place in our communities history! you are unreasonable and ignorate yourself for talking down about a place that has made such an impact on the small towns well being!! at one time the prison was the largest means of employment in the area!!! and as for what went on behind closed doors….
        i have worked in corrections for over 7 years now and although i have never seen it first-hand i am sure those things go on in prisons everywhere jerk…you grow up and open your eyes….if those people have done something bad enough to end up there…maybe they need “A Taste of their own medicine” i am not saying they deserved to be raped or beat to death but look who you are defending!!! find something better to argue over!!!! oh my…… 😦

      • Charles Thomas says:

        Somebody got a chip on that shoulder. Must have been a resident of the prison. Must have not faired so well!!!!!!!!!

        Charlie T.

    • ucpill says:

      I was a inmate there, and maybe james ray was the only famous inmate to some of you, but brushy mountain has tons of history there that was to much for msnbc, i was actually there from 2005-2-2007 i was release on new years day thank god i was,they document it in 2006, i’ll never forget it., the staff there was good people, treated you like a human, yes it was ran by people thats whole family work there thats what put petros on the map,”brushy mountain” i dug many graves on charlie hintz crew, worked for tommy larue, then i work on work release at the sawmill, only 30min break a day didn’t matter how the weather was,, i’ll never forget mike gunter, charlie hintz, n opie sebers,n larry wright, my old buddy chip my counslor,, mike gunter wasn’t only a guard he was there to help n guide you on the outside world, i can say brushy mountain house most dangerous crimials in the state, i never had any trouble there as alot of the inmates already knew me as the guards did, this place taught me what my future could be it was my choice to come back are stay out, without the staff at the white building there helping inmates i’d done been back, it sure was cold as hell in winter and hotter than hell in the summer, i found god there, never read one page until my term there, mike gunter oneday you showed me chapter 13 in corinthians, i read it alot to remind me to keep myself out, people brushy mountain wasn’t a joke, it was very serious prison, you wanted be a fool you was treated as a fool, as a inmate i never saw any staff beat anyone, but they house some of the worst crimials in history of tennessee, as i said it was how you wanted there, you could have easy going ride, are sure as hell made it very bumpie and not come home, prison is prison no matter where it is located, deaths is regular thing in prisons nation wide, i was blessed after 2 long months in classification to go to white building, and work my ass off, that place and staff help me wake up see that i didn’t have to always be a criminal i woke up everyday then n now with 1000’s of choices of how i want my day to be like, without the work-release,jobs outside the fence i couldve been productive citizen as i am today, and great father of 2 amazing kids, i was the 3rd generation of my family there, yes i hated digging graves,picking up trash, and sawmilling, @ first, God gave me second shot @ life, he mayve work thur the staff they to open my eyes, so i am thankful for my visit there, i was first house on b-side 69 cell, walk pass the meanest and dangerous criminal to get to my cell, my cell was at the end of the walk, out at the white building it wasn’t nothing for a long big snake crawl in your room at night, real snakes, brushy mountain and the staff i was giving advise from, and all the hard work i gave back for my crime, all i can say is thank you all, and god for allowing me come home show what i was taught, was taught i had choices soon as my eyes open, want to thank God for allowing me to see where i was headed and the staff mention above for all the advise and hard work i done, you all was right i can change, Godbless all the inmates,staff,

  2. sue hindman says:

    I think it would be a good idea to turn the prison into tours. This would create money to the town and create jobs.

  3. vicky pennington says:

    my cousin died at brushy…..i think the truth should be told about the people that ran the prison…let’s look into the people working there..Let’s take a tour of them…Let us question them…were they mean to the inmates…did they rape, torture…may god help them if they played god, judge, hangman….I hope you take a tour of the employees, not the building…you should be ashamed of yourself, if you are guilty…i hope this response causes someone to come forward….

    • ucpill says:

      I’m totally sorry for your lost, but that happens nation wide not just brushy mountain, sorry say but you ever look on other hand what your cousin may have been involved in? i’m sure him being there he knew the rules, so i can’t say the staff was wrong in this, but i can say,, i’m totally sorry for your lost and may God be with you and his whole family,

  4. Robin says:

    I think it should be open. Who cares if it’s in the middle of no where and only one famous person was kept there. Everyone there was a piece of history. The air around Brushy reeks of history and it would be an excellent way to create even more revenue for Petros. I say open it up and let us in.

  5. Jenny says:

    I believe it should be opened to the public. It is a big part of history, it was around for 113 years and the architecture is amazing. There are many people that would drive to see/tour it.

  6. Ken says:

    Yes! Brushy Mtn should be open to the public. Especially while many of the former employees & possible inmates are alive. Hopefully, there could be some presentation (in respectable fashion) from both sides. Bushy Mtn has many myths, stories personal beliefs as to its history. There is still media coverage of Brushy Mtn on television now. So let the public see the reality of this facility before it gets beyond repair. The revenue should help restore/maintain some of the history.

  7. Jordan Hansen says:

    I believe they should open bushy mountain Penn for tourist cuz not everybody has ever been in a prison that is as old as bushy is I’m from pike county Missouri and i would love to come and tour the prison plus we have an old prison located in in Jefferson city called the walls ( Missouri State Penn )

  8. MARY BYRD says:

    This county and alot of the surrounding counties are sturggling financially and I believe turning Brushy into a tourist attraction would be a great asset to Wartburg and to the neighboring counties too. People travel all over the world to see things like this and it is in our own back yard. There is money to be made here, use it, officials take care of your county.

  9. Dave Scheuerer says:

    I am wondering who actually has control of the prision now. I am in the event business in Atlanta and would love to hold several events and tours at the old prison.

    If you know shoot me an email

    Dave Scheuerer
    Ideal Event Management

  10. stonney Lane says:

    Should be preserved for the public to see a historical penitientiary.

  11. duke whitfield says:

    I think it should be preserved for historical reasons. I would diffently love to visit it if it was open to the public.

  12. donr morton says:

    my grandfather worked there steward in the kitchen his name is henery grider he told true storyes good an bad would like to see it open

    • ucpill says:

      My father done well over 14yrs at brushy mountain from time of 1982-2- 2004, in -n -out from that time frame, i will not post his name here, so i was visiting that prison from a child up to i was almost inmate there, guards and my great uncle told me stories about the old days there, most ppl today couldn’t made it there back then, it was dangerous place but i can’t say that only what guards that has worked there for over 25 plus yrs told me, as my uncle told me back in the day when they work in coalmine there, so for that place and staff so bad, they was hundreds of inmates trying get to there, cause they had great staff, and work-release to reproduct you back in the community

  13. Jessie says:

    My father done time at this Prison back in 1953, does anyone know how i could look up his archives from Brushy.

  14. I have to disagree with you. I think the location is wonderful. I’ve camped at Frozen Head not far from the prison (back when the prison was active) and thought the area was lovely. My son was young at the time and loved the variety of salamanders only found in the Tennessee mountains. The architecture of the prison is unique and very striking given how the Gothic structure fits with the topography of the mountain.

    I would love to visit it and see how it changed through its many years of service. When we were there last we did drive there just to see it from the public road because of the famous inmates it held at the time and did hold.

    Do not discount the beauty of your mountains nor the historic significance to the country that area holds. A large part of the appeal is the remoteness of the area. I do think perhaps it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. The area and historic structure is a treasure for more than just a game of paintball.

  15. william johnson says:

    my name is william johnson and i was at brushy from 1985 thru 1988.I would like to see it opened up as a museum to use as a learning tool to show young people a place where you dont want to be.similiar to the scared straight program of years ago.I have a young son and i would like for him to tour it.I could explain to him that this was not a motel but a place where people were sent to stay because they broke the law and had to be punished for that.I hope someone reads this and it one day opens as a museum.if it does” i’ll be there for a tour.the good thing about a tour is that i can leave when i want” not when my times up.

  16. Sam Raizor says:

    I came down there on my bike to ride the Devil’s Triangle which goes right by the prison. It might get more visitors that you think. I stopped and took pictures of it at that time and it was still operating. As for the people who live around there, I met several during my trip and you won’t find a nicer bunch of folks anywhere. I hope they do open it up, I will come back.

  17. brittany says:

    You sure don’t have nothing good to say about the prison. Maybe you should have lived around here and worked there this was like family everyone working there together.

  18. Jeannie says:

    I worked in Corrections for 9 years and was one of the very few Officers that would transport the worst of the worst to this prison. Over the course of the years I grew to know the Officers there. The prisoners learned respect and hard work during their stay there. This was a hard place for hard criminals. I truly hated seeing this remarkable prison close. The fact that it was a fortress erected from the belly of the mountain stands as a true marvel to me. I was always fascinated by this prisons history and the awe that it created from not only myself but every prisoner I transported. A pin could be heard dropping once we pulled into the view of this prison. So few people learn from our history, so few people respect others and so few people learn the easy way. This was a hard place with hard criminals. Some previously stated that maybe the place fit the crime. It has been my experience that if a convict was sent to Brushy, they truly deserved the sentence. Secondly, I worked in a County Jail that was far from Brushy. I witnessed rapes, stabbings and other hideous acts of violence over the course of the years. So very few of these acts were Officer related but created but the inmates themselves. No Officer wishes to start their day with a rape or murder. When we go home at night, none of us wishes to pass on those stories to our children relating to “How was your day?”

    Finally, the people in this town were nice and courteous. I live in a city and rarely find the gracious nature that these people offered each and every time I visited. For those that have hate in your heart, you will never have the ability to remove the blinders from the world that the press shows us. Think for yourselves and make judgements based on truth and experience rather than that of gossip and circumstance. This building is a standing model of history just has Salem, Massachusetts, Slave houses in the South, the Trail of Tears, Civil War Historical s and the under the desk politics of our Government. How is an empty prison that has so much history any worse than of the other parts of our past?

    • Helen Land says:

      I took my husband to see Brushy in 2013 I think it should be opened for tours to take the tour maybe all children go thru it stop alot of killing children being raped etc

  19. Aunt Kat says:

    Does anyone have information on an inmate at Brushy Mountain who built things out of matchsticks? He was incredibly talented. I have one of his works. I want to know more about the history of the person and his masterpiece.

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