Interest in the construction of a penitentiary dates back to 1815, when a state Senate committee recommended construction of the structure using funds obtained through public subscription. This effort failed, and political infighting in the general assembly over the penitentiary site lasted from 1819 to 1827. Finally, in 1829, the general assembly appropriated twenty-five thousand dollars for construction of a facility on Church Street in Nashville. Work began in April 1830; on January 1, 1831, the first prisoners arrived. The penitentiary contained 200 prison cells, a storehouse, a hospital, and living quarters for the warden.
In 1853, in response to serious overcrowding, the legislature approved the construction of thirty-two additional cells. Overcrowding was particularly acute for the female inmates housed on the upper floor of the main office building. In 1858, after further construction, the capacity increased to 352 beds. Accounts differ as to whether this new construction resulted in the creation of a separate structure or simply added a wing to the existing facility. In any case, expanding housing without concomitantly increasing funding for medical care, refuse control, and sanitation only served to exacerbate already squalid living conditions. During this period, rehabilitation played a subordinate role to motives of both retribution and profit, as the state sanctioned the exploitive convict leasing system.
The convict leasing system ended in disgrace in 1893 and the state legislature enacted legislation to discontinue the practice. The same legislature voted to erect a new state penitentiary in Nashville to include a minimum of 1,000 cells and a sufficient number of workshops to provide employment for all inmates. For the first time, the legislature also provided for a separate building to house female prisoners and staffed it with matrons (women prisoners had been supervised by male guards for the previous forty years).
Site selection evoked claims of “irregularities,” but eventually twelve hundred acres at the Cockrill Bend of the Cumberland River near Nashville were chosen. 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, 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-high, three-foot-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 five hundred thousand 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, unventilated 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.
In 1989 the Department of Correction opened a new penitentiary, the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution at Nashville. The old Tennessee State Penitentiary closed in June 1992. As part of the settlement in a class action suit, Grubbs v. Bradley (1983), the federal court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the Tennessee Department of Correction from ever again housing inmates at the Tennessee State Prison.
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)