Brushy History

Brushy's History

The gates to hell opened in 1896.

A Brief History of Brushy


Brushy Mountain officially opened in 1896 and began operations as a convict-lease prison. The state leased its grizzled prisoners to private mining companies. The citizen miners revolted. The bloody Coal Creek War erupted and the miners attacked and burned the state prison, stockades, and mines. Many miners and state militiamen were killed or wounded in small-arms skirmishes with the prisoners.

The conflict was resolved in favor of the miners. The convict-lease system was abolished and replaced with the Brushy Mountain Mine and Prison System. Convicts were enlisted to operate mines around state property. They built a railroad spur. Operated the coke ovens. They even built their own prison, which was originally a large wooden structure. That was replaced by the castle-like fortress you see today. Stone for the prison was mined by prisoners in a quarry on the property. Surprisingly, they built it in the shape of a cross to foster Christianity.

Prison life was dangerous. There were a number murders by inmates lookin’ to settle a score, not to mention deadly accidents. But those weren’t the only tragedies. Disease also struck the prison. Tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and pneumonia took many lives. In the early 1900's, 3/4 of the black men incarcerated at Brushy suffered from syphilis. They received poor medical treatment and were made to mine the coal and build the prison no matter what condition their health was in. If they weren’t willing to do the work, guards would beat them. Some... were beaten to death.

old interior
brushy mtn coal mines

By 1931 the number of prisoners housed at Brushy was 976, which was 300 more than the prison was meant to hold. This problem became known worldwide when likened to conditions in Siberian prisons under the Soviet regime. Plans were drawn up to build a new prison constructed of reinforced concrete in the shape of a Greek cross with battlements on top and 4 stories high. It was believed the penitentiary’s purpose was to convert convicts to Christians. Several buildings are constructed from hand-carved stone mined by inmates from a rock quarry above the prison.

The stone wall surrounding the prison was built in 1934. Standing at 18 feet high, it is constructed entirely from hand-carved stone. The north side of the prison wall is a natural bluff. Brushy is later listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only U.S. prison to have a natural bluff as a prison wall. The total cost for all the labor and materials was $45,960. 

James Earl Ray

In 1969, Brushy Mountain was reclassified primarily as a maximum-security prison. At that time, the facility provided the correctional system with approximately 350 maximum security beds "behind the walls" and 100 minimum security beds "outside the walls."

Between 1971 and 1994, the prison provided fire-fighting services to nearby communities 24/7.

Many an evil man served time at Brushy. James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s assassin, was one of ‘em. On June 10th, 1977, he and six other prisoners escaped over the back wall. One was shot and killed and everyone, including Ray were captured and returned to their cells within 3 days.

Escape attempts were infrequent and always unsuccessful. Encircled by the rugged and thickly wooded, rattle snake-infested mountains, it was darn near impossible to free yourself from the clutches of Brushy Mountain. The prison closed after 113 years of operation on June 11, 2009. Its functions were transferred to the Morgan County Correctional Complex. Most of the staff and remaining inmates were moved as well. But the legend of Brushy Mountain will live on for many, many years to come.