After the Civil War, Tennessee and other southern states were broke. So, convicts were for rent.
The state leased inmates to private companies for mining coal and other hard labor. The system made the government money. It also saved money because the state did not have to build prisons. Coal companies built their own stockades to hold inmates near the mines and profited from cheap labor.
"It was probably a good system in the beginning, but by the 1890s the system had gotten corrupt," said Barry Thacker with the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation.
Leasing convicts essentially turned inmates into slaves at a deadly job. Most inmates had no mining experience and working conditions were awful. The state labor commissioner in the 1890s inspected the convict mines and wrote, "It is shameful to think that any class of men, whether free men or convicts, are compelled or allowed to work within" the mines.
The brutal form of de facto slavery brought another injustice to East Tennessee. Inexpensive convict labor took the jobs of free coal miners. The conflict boiled over in the Anderson County town of Coal Creek. Coal Creek has since changed its name twice, first to Lake City and now to Rocky Top.
The community was named Coal Creek when free miners fought back against convict-leasing. In 1891, the miners raided prison camps, tore down stockades, loaded guards and inmates on a train, and sent them out of town. They made it clear that convict labor was not welcome in Coal Creek.
The coal companies sent the inmates back. Governor John Buchanan sent troops to protect the prison camps. It was a showdown.
"This was a real moment in history. Free miners in Tennessee faced the state's militia in armed battle," said Bob Fulcher, a park ranger and founder of the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project, during an interview with WBIR's Heartland Series.
Miners and militia fought each other in the Coal Creek War through the fall of 1892. The troops eventually won the battle, but miners won the war of public opinion. The controversy cost Governor Buchanan any chance at reelection. National publicity cast shame on the system of leasing convicts. The new administration banned renting convicts to private companies.
"The miners lost the final battle, but they won the war when the state abolished convict-leasing," said Thacker.
Without convict-leasing, the state government would lose a large source of revenue and incur the expense of building prisons to house inmates. The state’s solution was to mimic private companies and mine coal for itself.
Geology experts inspected several locations across the state and recommended buying the land beside the small town of Petros in Morgan County because "there is no better coal property in the State of Tennessee."
"The state decided to cut out the middle-man. It was state efficiency at its finest. Coal was a valuable resource during the industrial revolution with steam-powered engines and a big demand for steel in cities across the country," said Joe Nowotarski, park ranger and historian at Frozen Head State Park.
"It turned out to be a money-making venture for the state," said Thacker. "Rather than leasing convicts to work in someone else's mine, they built Brushy Mountain State Prison and coal mine and used their own prisoners to mine their own coal. They had their own coke ovens to turn it into coke for making steel."
The state would not go back to being broke. It would force inmates to perform back-breaking work for profit.
Inmates laid the railroad tracks to the brand new Brushy Mountain State Prison, constructed a four-story wooden prison barracks, and started digging for underground riches in 1896.
None of the inmates at Brushy Mountain were on death row. Yet, doing time at Brushy was often a death sentence.
"At the Frozen Head mine, the coal here was very high in methane. That means it is very explosive. You hit one of those explosive pockets and boom. The whole thing will go up," said Nowotarski. "Geologically, I would not want to be digging or tunneling in this area. In addition to the explosive component of coal, the area has a mix of sandstone and shale. Shale is brittle and wafer-thin. Sandstone is very sturdy. You had a mix of strong rocks, explosive coal, and shale that easily crumbled. It was a recipe for disaster and cave-ins."
It was a difficult job in a treacherous location performed by imprisoned men who often had no prior mining experience. Dozens of inmates died in mining accidents. Nonetheless, the state kept demanding the living to mine coal.
Inmates worked all day. If they stopped, they found painful motivation from a seven-foot leather strap. After a day of abuse underground, the convicts spent the night in an overcrowded disease-infested wooden building heated by fire.
If the coal mines and disease did not kill you, another inmate might. Murder was a common cause of death at Brushy Mountain State Prison.
"The mines were dangerous geologically and it was a very volatile work group. These are convicted criminals you are forcing into a hole together," said Nowotarski.
In 1932, former Brushy Mountain prisoner Rex Cosby of Memphis wrote a series of newspaper articles to shed light on the horrific conditions at the prison. The white-collar criminal went to prison for forgery, but found the fortitude to put his real name on the byline of scathing articles that would undoubtedly result in retribution if he was ever imprisoned again.
Cosby wrote about how the prisoners worked in sludge, ate unrecognizable slop, and had to steal food and blankets to survive the cold nights in the prison. Those who survived were destined to endure the slavery that came with the next sunrise. Cosby said floggings were frequent, inmates were “driven like animals,” and he named 13 men who died during a 15-month span at the prison.
Other former inmates publicly verified Cosby's story. A World War 1 veteran from Corryton who served time at Brushy said he would rather go over the top of the trenches during battle in Europe than go back down in the mines at Brushy.
The articles captured the attention of clergy, the women’s league, and politicians. When the state’s new commissioner of institutions inspected Brushy Mountain, he called the wooden building a fire trap and described the overall prison as one of "the worst things in the state."
Improvements were on the way in the form of a fire-proof building constructed of sandstone. In the mid-1930s, the current fortress-like building was completed. It offered improvements in safety, sanitation, and possibly salvation.
"If you look at the building from overhead up top, you can see it is in the shape of a Christian cross," said Nowotarski. "That was to 'just give them some Jesus,' for lack of a better term. They wanted to moralistically reform these people incarcerated at Brushy."
The improved facilities may have been a relative slice of heaven, but Brushy remained a violent hell for prisoners.
Inmates kept killing inmates. On a couple of occasions, guards killed fellow guards. The mines remained a death trap. The cave-ins continued and so did the beatings.
Some guards made money on prisoners by accepting bribes for better treatment. A state investigation in the 1930s found some guards simply stole from inmates. American Legion bonus payments to prisoners who were World War 1 veterans were often intercepted and cashed by prison workers.
Prisoners who took all they could stand had one main method of standing up for themselves. They went on strike and refused to work.
You can force hundreds of inmates down in the mines with a few guards, but you cannot easily or quickly force them out. Prisoners organized strikes in the mines to force the authorities to acknowledge their complaints.
At least half a dozen times from the 1920s through the 1960s, inmates took guards hostage in the mines and refused to come out until their grievances were heard.
The prisoners who made trouble paid a painful price. The state doled out lashings to the leaders of prison strikes.
A Knoxville News Sentinel article from August 1933 states the leader of a strike was diagnosed as insane and shipped off to a mental institution. The article said the insanity diagnosis was based on a blood test.
The madness of the prison mines continued until the mid-1960s. That’s when another mine collapse killed a couple of inmates from East Tennessee who were convicted of relatively small crimes, far from deserving a death-sentence.
Aside from the accidents, the mines were no longer profitable for the state. The last lumps of Brushy Mountain coal came out of the ground with the inmates in 1966.
The mines were closed for good, but what do you do with all the inmates? Idle hands gave crowds of stir-crazy convicts more time to do the devil’s work and plot ways to escape.