A visit to an historic penitentiary.

Anna Grace and I chose a perfect day to visit. Overnight clouds and morning fog still hugged some of the peaks around Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, adding to the experience.

Though, there were a few moments when we could very well have been in a Wes Anderson movie scene.

Notice the “Society of the Crossed Keys” symbol? So very Wes.

The “Warden” who greets every visitor.

Let us not forget to socially-distance!

The Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, about an hour from Knoxville was an “end of the line” pokey for the worst of the worst. Constructed initially of wood in 1896 by the original inmates, the prison was rebuilt following a fire. The pen closed in 2009 and became a museum in 2018.

Having a former inmate as a guide turned what could have been an ordinary experience into the extraordinary for us.  George “Bomber” Wyatt was “given a second chance” to quote his own words when he was sent to the Brushy Pen. He had been working as a security guard at a country club; his wife needed more tuition money to complete her nursing degree. George robbed the country club, then blew it up to cover his tracks. Most thankfully this did not result in the loss of life, or he would have been sent to a federal pen in Atlanta. Instead, he was sent to Brushy Mountain to be nearer to his wife and two young children, and was escorted in by his father, a Correctional Officer.

George’s stories as he walked us around were dramatic. Prisoners were segregated (which created its own set of conflicts); many of them were part of the mining crews for East Tennessee; and discipline was swift and harsh. Perhaps if enough wannabe criminals were to hear them they might take a different path in life. Because many of the inmates were serving multiple life sentences they really had “nothing to lose,” so to speak; and as might be typical in prisons they formed their own “governing body.”  George spoke of “BJ,” who ran a protection scheme that would make Tony Soprano jealous and that he was grateful to be on BJ’s good side. Others who were not found themselves knifed in the “Slop Hall” during a meal, or worse.

Visitation Day was understandably a big deal, doubly so for those fortunate enough to enjoy a “contact visit.” Not only could they receive a warm embrace from a loved one,  but they could also avail themselves of the only cold vending machine around. George noted to us that he would guzzle as many ice cold Coca-Cola’s that he could during his family visits. For others, Visitation Day was not as meaningful.

Over his two year stay (released early from his eight-year sentence) George moved from a solitary cell to something more habitable, at one point residing in the same cell as the prison’s most notorious resident, James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin.

George described how the prisoners helped Ray escape, by building a ladder from pipes in order that he (and six other convicts) could climb over a prison wall, with each piece carefully hidden until it could be assembled. A second group staged a fight that attracted the correctional officers attention, and over the wall the escapees went. But not for long; with one wall of the facility literally being a mountain, they could not get far and were recaptured within days.

George wrapped up this highly interesting tour telling us that once he was released from prison he became as straight as an arrow and worked honestly for the next 30 years. In 2018 George’s daughter visited the newly opened museum and told one of the docents that her father had been an inmate; they asked permission to reach out to George, who accepted their invitation to be a guide. Each day, he says, he feels blessed to come and go as a free man.

Of course, lunch features prominently in most, if not all of our activities. At the Warden’s Table restaurant we shared a literal cafeteria tray-sized portion of Pulled Pork Nachos. They were killer good. 😉