What was once considered the end of the line is now drawing lines back to Petros, Tenn. Since it reopened as a tourist attraction fewer than five weeks ago, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary has already brought more than 20,000 people to visit.
The traffic isn’t just for the tour of what was once a maximum-security prison, housing notorious criminals like James Earl Ray, or the food, or the moonshine distilled on-site. It’s also the experience. Tours include a one-on-one interaction with former correctional officers and former inmates.
Michelle Johnson, general manager, says she knew the owner’s vision was big, but didn’t expect the final product to be this big.
“I think it’s going to be even bigger and I think it’s amazing what it’s going to do for this community and this county,” she said.
Johnson, seeing people come from as far as Nova Scotia, says tourists can learn a lot from the small community that surrounds the prison.
Wayne Davidson is a former inmate at Brushy Mountain. In total, he served 32 years behind bars. Eight of them were at Brushy. His first day at Brushy was in 1969. He finds being back and sharing his story to be therapeutic. He’s been out for six years, and although he earned a business degree in prison, he’s been unable to find work. He says no one would hire him due to his theft charge. This was the only job available to him that required his felony record and time in prison to qualify.
He loves his job. In fact, Davidson shows up an hour before the gates open daily to write down stories he remembers about his time in prison, hoping to publish a book.
He remembers the yard, which is now a popular place for photos, was unsafe when the prison was in operation.
“You have people robbing each other, extorting each other, running drugs, stuff like that,” he said. “I was born in Roane County, but I was sure raised up in the penitentiary.”
He says before he returned to the prison to work, he had frequent nightmares about breaking the law and going back.
Deborah Williams loves showing off what was her job for 28 years. In fact, while employed at Brushy Mountain Williams obtained permission from the warden then to put together museum to commemorate the history of the then 100-year-old correctional facility. That was in 1996. For her to be able to work at the prison again and show it off she says is a dream come true.
“My passion is to share and keep the history of this prison alive and this area,” she said.
First employed in 1980, Williams says she was among the first females placed behind the wall to work when the prison was considered maximum security. “
It’s more than just a prison. It’s more than just buildings and grounds. It’s history itself,” Williams said.
She says it reminds us where we came from and where we have to go in terms of how we treat other people.
“Anything you can think of love, hate, evil, good, it all happened here. But, it happened in a very small, confined, area,” she remembered.
To learn more about tour times and events at Brushy Mountain, click here.