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 1930 to the present.
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.
Several buildings on the massive compound are still in some use today, but the rest of the prison lies in disrepair and deterioration. The Tennessee State Prison is now a wonderland of decay.
Not without danger, the buildings on the site are contaminated with black mould, asbestos, and lead based paint among other obvious perils. Yet, it is a completely fascinating location to explore.
Numerous films and music videos have been shot on the grounds of the prison.