Tennessee State Prison: Where Johnny Cash Held a Concert for the Inmates

Bojan Ivanov

Tennessee State Prison is a historic prison located near the city center of Nashville, Tennessee in the United States of America.

The former Tennessee State Penitentiary was opened in 1898 and was closed and permanently abandoned when the city authorities built a modern prison in Nashville in 1992.

Main entrance of Tennessee State Penitentiary. Author: Pepper6181 CC BY 2.5

Main entrance of Tennessee State Penitentiary. Author: Pepper6181 CC BY 2.5

The Gothic style of the Tennessee State Prison. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

The Gothic style of the Tennessee State Prison. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

The prison was built by Enoch Guy Elliot. He was the Chief Warden of the old prison and he used the prisoners as the main labor force for construction of the new prison. The construction of a fortress-like structure for the new prison cost more than $500,000 ($12.3 million in 2007 dollars), not including the price of the land. The prison was designed after Auburn Prison in New York and had 800 small cells, one for each prisoner.

One of the guard towers. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

One of the guard towers. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

 

Abandoned cell block.

Abandoned cell block.

The first prisoners arrived on February 12, 1898. The initial population was 1,403 prisoners, so the prison was immediately overcrowded. Overcrowding was a dire problem in the prison throughout the next century. When the old Tennessee facility was torn down, the materials from the old building were used in the construction of the new one.

Within the twenty-foot high and three-foot thick rock walls, other structures were also built, including factories, warehouses, and buildings for the prison staff and administration. The complex also had a farm outside the walls and a separate part for the young prisoners.

The state electric chair, known as “Old Sparky”. Author: Dave.scaglione CC BY-SA 3.0

The state electric chair, known as “Old Sparky”. Author: Dave.scaglione CC BY-SA 3.0

In the first years, the prisoners were used as a labor force. Every prisoner was expected to spend a portion of their imprisonment engaging in hard physical work. They worked sixteen hours per day with short sleeping breaks. The State made contracts with private companies who used the inmates for labor while operating factories in the prison. In its history, the prison witnessed several great escapes, murders, serious fires, and riots. The prison was also home to the state electric chair, known as “Old Sparky”, which was used in the execution of 125 people.

Typical cell facilities.

Typical cell facilities.

 

Gate 4. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

Gate 4. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

James Earl Ray, the man who killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was imprisoned here for a part of his 99-year sentence in the 1960s. The Tennessee State Prison is also famous for several cultural reasons: Johnny Cash gave a small concert here for the inmates in 1968 and The Green Mile and Walk the Line were filmed here.

The basketball court. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

The basketball court. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

 

An abandoned car in the prison. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

An abandoned car in the prison. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

 

Overgrown vegetation. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

Overgrown vegetation. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

 

The prison wall. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

The prison wall. Author: Alison Groves CC BY-ND 2.0

The complex was completely deserted 25 years ago. Even so, the building has stood the test of time. The exterior is reasonably undamaged, in spite of the vegetation that has overtaken the area. The interior has remained untouched since its abandonment, and the former prison cells are ruined and rusted. No plans exist to renovate or restore the prison in the near future.