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  • June 24, 2024 11:12 pm local time


Evil men who did evil things were imprisoned here, with many locked away for the rest of their lives. And while the death penalty was never carried out at Brushy, more than a few died of natural causes or in the mines. Others met their end with the blade of a meat cleaver or a shiv, the final blow delivered by the violent hands of fellow inmate.

These are the souls that haunt this stone-cold fortress, whose spirits refuse to cross over. Who remain here because they have unfinished business.

Visitors have been touched, shoved, scratched and even growled at. Nevertheless, they have a cautious fascination with this unexplained world of the undead.


Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary wasn’t just a jail. For decades it was a coal mine for the state of Tennessee that originated in the wake of a bloody labor battle.

The end of the Civil War led to a boom in railroad construction and the rapid expansion of the coal mining industry throughout Tennessee. Because many of the state’s coal veins were located in remote areas, most mining companies providing housing by collecting rent from miners’ wages.

When those companies opened onsite stores selling food, clothes and other necessities at inflated prices, already poor workers piled up debt. By the time their debt and rent were paid, they had little to show for a meager wage job with dangerous working conditions. The Coal Creek miners were clever, holding strikes in winter when coal demand was high; this tactic worked until a new convict lease program gave companies a cheaper, more compliant workforce.

The prison lease system was adopted throughout the South mainly because state governments couldn’t afford to build and maintain prisons or feed, shelter and clothe inmates and a convict lease program cut costs and brought in money. Beyond that, officials could exploit the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery but allowed “involuntary servitude” for criminal punishment.

When federal troops left the South in 1877 after Reconstruction, state officials who were hostile to former slaves handed down long prison terms and life sentences; even for petty crimes. Soon, blacks made up the majority of prisoners in the South.

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