Skip to content

Old Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville

2011 October 9

I just found another glass negative! Thanks again to Mark D. Cowan from Texas Historical Commission for finding another one!  This is the old Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, Tennessee.

Old State Penitentiary in Nashville, Tennessee c 1898

My glass negative photo above shows the Gothic-inspired administration building and walls of the Tennessee State Penitentiary taken after completion of the prison in 1898, by unidentified photographer.  See the people in front of the building for prospective.

As stated on the site; it states that this building and location is not listed on any historic register, national or local. And it cannot be used as another prison or jail due to the court’s ruling [from a 1983 class action lawsuit]. While not in any danger of being demolished, the buildings will continue to deteriorate. Heat and humidity take their toll after only just a few years of closure, and this prison has been sealed since 1992. With its location close to downtown Nashville, reuse of the building should be a more pressing matter although it’s very specific design and construction doesn’t aid in its ability to be renovated into other purposes.

A historic postcard image:

Tennessee State Prison

Tennessee State Prison is a prison in Nashville that has been closed since 1989. The Green Mile, The Last Castle, Pillar‘s “Bring Me Down” video were also filmed there. Most recently VH1‘s Celebrity Paranormal Project filmed there for the third episode of the series called The Warden.

The proposed prison design called for the construction of a fortress-like structure patterned after the penitentiary at Auburn, New York, made famous for the lockstep marching, striped prisoner uniforms, nighttime solitary confinement, and daytime congregate work under strictly enforced silence. The new Tennessee prison contained 800 small cells, each designed to house a single inmate. In addition, an administration building and other smaller buildings for offices, warehouses, and factories were built within the twenty-foot (6.15m) high, three-foot (1m) thick rock walls. The plan also provided for a working farm outside the walls and mandated a separate system for younger offenders to isolate them from older, hardened criminals.

Construction costs for this second Tennessee State Penitentiary exceeded US$500,000 (US$12.3 million in 2007 dollars), not including the price of the land. The prison’s 800 cells opened to receive prisoners on February 12, 1898, and that day admitted 1,403 prisoners, creating immediate overcrowding. To a greater or lesser extent, overcrowding persisted throughout the next century. The original Tennessee State Penitentiary on Church Street was demolished later that year, and salvageable materials were used in the construction of outbuildings at the new facility, creating a physical link from 1830 to the present.

Every convict was expected to defray a portion of the cost of incarceration by performing physical labor. Within two years, inmates worked up to sixteen hours per day for meager rations and unheated, ventilated sleeping quarters. The State also contracted with private companies to operate factories inside the prison walls using convict labor.

The Tennessee State Penitentiary had its share of problems. In 1902, seventeen prisoners blew out the end of one wing of the prison, killing one inmate and allowing the escape of two others who were never recaptured. Later, a group of inmates seized control of the segregated white wing and held it for eighteen hours before surrendering. In 1907 several convicts commandeered a switch engine and drove it through a prison gate. In 1938 inmates staged a mass escape. Several serious fires ignited at the penitentiary, including one that destroyed the main dining room. Riots occurred in 1975 and 1985. Wikipedia

Above information at the link:

Previous Post
Next Post
7 Responses Post a comment
  1. Joy M. permalink
    April 2, 2020

    It was hit by the tornado on March, 2020. Because of the Covid virus, there has been no mention of whether it will be rebuilt or demolished. The pictures I saw showed quite a bit of damage. I will be surprised if the rebuild.

  2. February 24, 2018

    Thank for the info.

  3. February 24, 2018

    One important thing to note is that the center tower was reduced in size by about 3 floors at some point. I don’t know when or why. This picture is evidence that the center tower was originally much taller than it is today.

  4. January 22, 2014

    do you know were u can get a list of the initial Inmates from 1898?

  5. Jason Hale permalink
    January 19, 2013

    Thanks Jan,
    I totally understand you not wanting to sell it. I look forward to hearing from you, as I would love for this to be the cover of my book. This is actually the earliest photo that I have seen of the prison. This appears to be right after it opened, or maybe before it opened. please email me at [email protected] Thanks again.

  6. January 6, 2013

    Jason, I’m glad your found my blog and are interested in my TSP photo. I do not wish to sell the glass negative but will be glad to discuss use for your upcoming book cover and of course for use in a possible museum. I will contact you back on your email later. Again thanks for the contact. Jan

  7. Jason Hale permalink
    January 5, 2013

    I couldn’t help but notice this glass negative you have of TSP. I am currently heading a campaign to save this historical prison here in tennessee. I am also writing a book about the history of this prison. I am curious if you would be interested in selling this historical piece. I would really like to include it on the cover of my book, and I think if the prison ever does get opened for tours, it would look great in the museum. Please email me, and let me know what you think. This is an amazing piece. Thanks so much for your time.
    Jason “Save The Prison”

Leave a Reply

Note: You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.