Tennessee Prison System

Section 32 of the Tennessee Constitution states that “the erection of safe and comfortable prisons, the inspection of prisons, and the humane treatment of prisoners, shall be provided for.” In 1796 the legislature passed three separate acts to establish courthouses, jails, and stocks in three separate counties of the state. Similar acts were subsequently passed providing for the establishment of small prisons in the county seats. In 1813 the legislature authorized the taking of voluntary contributions for the purpose of building a penitentiary, but the effort failed after only about $2,000 was subscribed. In 1819 Governor Joseph McMinn suggested that a loan be made from the State Bank to fund the construction of a prison, but it was not until 1829 that the legislature passed a law to build one in Nashville. Work began in April 1830, and on January 1, 1831, Governor William Carroll opened the prison for the reception of convicts. The prison contained two hundred cells, a warden’s dwelling, a storehouse, a hospital, and other structures. Carroll also was responsible for criminal code reform, abolishing whipping, branding, the pillory, and the use of stocks, as well as implementing other punishments for many crimes for which execution had been the penalty.

Tennessee’s first prison was used until 1858, when new construction was completed. In 1898 it was replaced by the “modern” Tennessee State Prison, located in the Cockrill Bend area of Davidson County. This new prison resulted from the efforts of Governor Peter Turney, who also secured funding for Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Morgan County. The Turney administration brought an end to the convict lease system, a badly abused system of leasing inmate labor to private industry, which had been in force since 1866.

In 1930 a new building for adult female offenders was built on the grounds of the Tennessee State Penitentiary. Although the female facility was located separately, it was administratively dependent on the Tennessee State Prison. By 1937 both state prisons were badly overcrowded, and in December, the Western Tennessee Penal Farm (later Fort Pillow State Penal Farm, now the Cold Creek Correctional Facility) was opened in Lauderdale County. This institution included about five thousand acres of agricultural land where inmates raised diversified crops and livestock. Also in 1937 the general assembly approved a bond issue for $1,500,000 to establish Tennessee State Industries, which provided employment for approximately six hundred prisoners. It also established the Board of Pardon and Paroles.

A number of changes took place in the 1950s. In 1955 an inmate classification system was created at the Tennessee State Penitentiary, and the Department of Institutions and Public Welfare was renamed the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). Two years later, the general assembly established the Division of Juvenile Probation, and a statewide system of juvenile probation became operational in 1958.

Operational and administrative reforms occupied prison personnel during the 1960s. In 1961 the Division of Adult Probation and Parole was established, and in 1963 the Board of Paroles appointed its first black member. In 1965 juvenile institutions were desegregated, juveniles were classified by age, and a prison school was established and accredited. Corporal punishment for adult offenders was abolished in 1966, and the Tennessee Prison for Women became operational. The Tennessee State Penitentiary initiated treatment services for the first time in 1968 and opened a halfway house for male offenders in Nashville the following year.

In the 1970s the Tennessee prison system felt the impact of continuing state reform and reorganization, as well as the effect of federal court decisions. The general assembly authorized adult work release in 1970. Several significant events happened in 1972. A reorganization of the Board of Pardons and Paroles gave the governor the power to appoint board members and the chair. Brushy Mountain State Prison closed following a series of labor problems. In June the U.S. Supreme Court, in Furman v. Georgia, declared capital punishment, as it was then applied, unconstitutional. The death sentences of Tennessee prisoners were commuted to life imprisonment. In Tennessee, the gallows preceded the electric chair, and no penitentiary records exist to indicate how many were executed in this manner. However, seventy-eight were executed by electrocution, beginning with Julius Morgan in 1916, and ending with William Tines in 1960. In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, ruled that Georgia’s revised death penalty statute met constitutional requirements, and many states, including Tennessee, rewrote their laws to conform to the Georgia model. In 2001, Philip Workman became the first person to be executed under the new Tennessee death penalty law.

Other significant events of the 1970s included an inmate revolt over living conditions called the “pork chop” riot at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in 1975, the reopening of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in 1976, and the opening of the Lois M. DeBerry Institute for Special Needs Offenders in 1977. In 1978 corporal punishment for juvenile offenders was abolished. That same year, the Board of Paroles was expanded to five members; in 1979 it was separated from TDOC and became an autonomous unit.

The 1980s were a troubled decade for Tennessee’s prison system. In 1982 the federal district court declared parts of the system unconstitutional in Grubbs v. Bradley and appointed a special master to oversee improvements in the system. In the summer of 1985, overcrowding provoked violence and riots occurred throughout the prison system, causing millions of dollars in damage. The general assembly responded by holding its First Extraordinary Session on Corrections and passing the Comprehensive Corrections Improvement Act of 1985. This act established the Oversight Committee on Corrections, the Tennessee Sentencing Commission, and the Community Corrections Program. All juvenile functions and responsibilities were removed from TDOC in 1989, and the Department of Youth Development was created to assume these duties. Later that year, both the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville and the Wayne County Boot Camp became operational.

In 1992 the Corrections Corporation of America, headquartered in Nashville, began operation of the South Central Correctional Center in Clifton. This was the first private prison to operate in Tennessee. In that same year, the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville was closed, and TDOC was permanently enjoined by the federal court from housing inmates there. The following year, the special master released TDOC from supervision.

The Tennessee Department of Correction became the first adult correctional system in America to have all of its institutions accredited by the American Correctional Association.

Suggested Reading

Larry D. Gossett, The Keepers and the Kept: The First Hundred Years of the Tennessee Prison System, 1830-1930 (1992); Tennessee State Penitentiary, History of the Tennessee Penal Institutions: 1813-1940 (1940)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Tennessee Prison System
  • Frank Lee
  • Author Robert Rogers
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 22, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018