The End of Brushy Mountain

An annotated correction to a reference about a correctional institution

I got some contrary response to my last column, "Who Wrote This Script?" My main point, that Knox County's law director should resign, seems to offer little in the way of controversy. The sentiment that he should go home is so popular that it's not even bold to agree. However, I did get some flak for that article, for one barely anachronistic analogy.

Surprised by the forgiving hearts of some in county government, it occurred to me that we adjust our response to people taking money illegally for some urgent need, depending on who the accused in question is. If we know a perpetrator personally, he's always "troubled," or "going through a rough patch." If we don't know him, he's a criminal who needs to be locked up for three to five. A lot of people wind up in the state pen because they took money they thought they really needed, and many convicts stole much less than our law director is accused of taking.

So I wrote, "If we excuse criminals on the basis of sincere personal need for quick cash, we could empty Brushy Mountain."

As it turns out, Brushy Mountain was being emptied, anyway, the same day that column appeared in print. I thought the prison swap was still months off. But Thursday was the day the last of the prisoners moved into a modern facility not far away from old Brushy. As one of my correctors admitted, the new facility, "Morgan County Regional Correctional Complex" doesn't have quite the same ring.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary is about 40 miles west by northwest of Knoxville, and it is, for better or worse, famous. It's our Leavenworth, our Attica, our Alcatraz. For my whole life it's been used as analogy, as metaphor; it's referred to in novels ranging from John Grisham's The Firm to Cormac McCarthy's Suttree. It is, like it or not, part of the East Tennessee soul.

The oldest part of Brushy Mountain has been there since the 1890s. Its castellated architecture, which resembles Collegiate Gothic, still looks like it was designed to accommodate archers fending off an invasion of Visigoths from the hills of Morgan County. Built of local stone, its original central tower was frankly beautiful, like a big city's grandest train station. I wish we had something like it on Kingston Pike.

It put an ennobling face on horrors within. In the prison's earliest days, guards referred frankly to its "dungeons." It was a modern era in some ways: in town, we were enjoying phonographs and electric lights and a few very early motion pictures. At Brushy Mountain, they were taking unruly prisoners down to the dungeons and hanging them by their thumbs. Whether it had any salutary effect on the free populace is hard to prove. The murder rate back then was several times higher than it is today.

The murder rate may have been highest of all at Brushy Mountain. According to some reports, during the first third of the 20th century, Brushy Mountain, which had only about 300 inmates, witnessed a murder a week. You might have had better odds in the trenches facing the Hindenburg Line.

One of the reasons they located it in Morgan County, in those days of hard labor, was that there were rich coal mines nearby. Inmates worked in a prison-operated mine until a couple of inmates were killed in a cave-in in the mid-1960s.

I'd almost forgotten, but last week wasn't the first time Brushy Mountain was emptied and closed. It happened during a labor dispute there in 1972, when Gov. Winfield Dunn fired 150 striking guards. Its prisoners shuttled to other facilities around the state, Brushy Mountain's closing seemed to be permanent until Gov. Ray Blanton reopened it in 1975. In the meantime new criminals actually snuck into Brushy Mountain, to strip and vandalize the facilities.

Its greatest national fame came in 1977, when the most famous prisoner in its history, James Earl Ray, escaped. He was gone only two days before bloodhound-assisted guards tracked him down. Its grounds offer few options.

I visited Brushy Mountain on a few occasions in the 1980s, when I was working for a criminal law firm, sometimes interviewing witnesses, or perpetrators, in murder cases. The first time I was there, my job was to map the cell block where a series of prison-mob murders, the Brushy Mountain version of gangland killings, had taken place. The cough medicine I was taking may have added to the effect, but it was, maybe, the strangest day of my life. I went through a complex series of checkpoints, repeatedly searched. A college boy in a suit and tie, carrying a sketch pad, I tried not to look the guys in the eye, on an errand that seemed suddenly absurd. I marked off feet and inches on a chart; I drew a diagram of it for lawyers to use in the multiple-murder case. Drawing a diagram of where men had been shot to death in their cells.

"You drawin' a pitcher of us, son?" one man asked.

The cell block was like a cliff on the brink of a canyon of concrete and steel. I looked over the edge, dizzier than I've ever been on a waterfall or the roof of a building. From somewhere down below came perhaps the last thing I would have expected to hear in this place: a plaintive lament, with the refrain, "One of our submarines / is missing tonight." The minor-key ballad by British pop provocateur Thomas Dolby wasn't on the Knoxville radio stations, but here it was, unaccountably, perhaps emanating from some New Wave hard-timer's boom box in the bowels of Brushy Mountain. Men sat staring, same as they would have if it were "Long Black Veil" or "In the Pines."

It seemed incoherently profound, as do some other things that make no sense. I felt as if we were all missing a submarine or two. Maybe it was the cough medicine.