Prologue by Brian Siskind
Tennessee State Prison 1898-1992
On the Inside
The Tennessee State Prison is rich with history – a storied institution as many of the penitentiaries across the country built to be modeled after the “Auburn” system. The original design is what I wanted to capture as a filmmaker – not only the ornate, majestic Victorian architecture, but I also wanted to capture the feeling of the prison. The penitentiary concept was about reflection, solitude, and work – toward enlightenment to get beyond human flaws. This is why a visual narrative documentary style was used – it is more of a meditation than a true historical documentary. The purpose is to inspire others to value and appreciate the prison. I hope viewers will be motivated to research the history and learn more about this institution as a result of watching this film.
The title, On the Inside, is clearly based on the term that a correctional officer or inmate would use about being “inside” the walls of the prison. I thought it was an apt title in a deeper sense as well - since the prison was designed to affect change in people - from the inside out. During the course of filming I pondered the inmate experience. While walking the yard, I imagined inmates contemplating what their life had become. Their imaginations may have wandered to thoughts and dreams of freedom - getting beyond the walls. Those daydreams likely erased as they were pulled back to their reality of being incarcerated.
I shot this piece with all of this in mind. Drones are the perfect tool to not only explore behind the walls but to capture this feeling with immersive, transcendent views. The film was made from sunrise to sunset in one day – the spine of the piece is doing time. I wanted to make something unprecedented – views and perspectives that have never been seen by anyone before.
Critical to this piece was honoring all of the people who have been involved with the Tennessee State Prison. Administration, Correctional Officers and inmates have all passed through these doors. I wanted to make sure that I focused on the conflicted beauty of the complex, while also honoring those that passed away on these grounds.
I must note that this project would not have taken place except through a unique partnership with the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). This partnership allowed me to access the normally off-limits property. Without this partnership, the piece would not have been created.
Finally, I must also note that the historic Tennessee State Prison is not an abandoned property. The Tennessee Department of Correction still actively utilizes the grounds and due to the secure nature of their business, it is off limits to the public. This site is actively patrolled by officers and anyone caught trespassing will be prosecuted. Please enjoy the film but do not venture out to the property.
- Brian Siskind
Those Drones, LLC | Creative Drone Works
Nashville, TN October 2016
Tennessee State Prison 1898-1992
ON THE INSIDE
Released October 13th, 2016 - the film has been acclaimed on NPR, NBC, ABC, CBS, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Miami Herald, syndicated by the Associated Press and beyond.
Filmed and Produced by Brian Siskind and Jim Demain
Due to the abundance of interest in this property, this film was done at the request of, and in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Correction to share the beautiful architecture with the citizens of Tennessee. Please do not attempt to visit the historic Tennessee State Penitentiary. The Tennessee Department of Correction actively uses this property and trespassers will be prosecuted. While architecturally beautiful, many areas of the original complex are unsafe and hazardous. Access to the property is restricted at this time. If you are interested in a close up view of the property, please follow TDOC on social media for information about the Big Brothers Big Sisters 5k held in May. Details regarding this 5k will be available on the Department of Correction’s website in early April.
Tennessee State Prison History
"At the time it was built, this penitentiary was considered one of the most modern and humane prisons in the United States. The Administration Building was built almost entirely of materials indigenous to the State of Tennessee. Its appearance, which at first glance belies its use, suggests the European castle as romanticized by the nineteenth-century imagination."
- 1970 Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) No, TN-33
Tennessee State Prison is a former correctional facility located near downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Opened in 1898, the prison has been closed since 1992. It has been the location for the films Nashville, Marie,Ernest Goes to Jail, Against the Wall, The Green Mile, The Last Castle, two of Eric Church's music videos "Lightning" and "Homeboy", and Pillar's "Bring Me Down" music video. Most recently VH1's Celebrity Paranormal Project filmed there for the third episode of the series (titled "The Warden") as well as the last episode of the first season (titled "Dead Man Walking"). The prison was referred to as "The Walls Maximum Security Prison" in both episodes to protect the location's privacy.
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 marching, 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 (6.15m)high, three-foot (1 m) 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.
The prison was built by Enoch Guy Elliott who was married to Lady Ida Beasley Elliott (Missionary to Burma). Gov. Turney made Enoch Guy Elliott the Chief Warden of the old prison and then during the building of the second prison, Enoch used primarily prison labor to build the new prison.
Construction costs for this second Tennessee State Penitentiary exceeded US$500,000 (US$12.3 million in 2007 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.
TN State Prison Facts
Opened February 12, 1898
Designed for 800 inmates, on opening day 1,403 prisoners were incarcerated.
17 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.
20ft (h) x 3 ft. (w)
The surrounding rock walls still stand today. They are 3 feet thick, and 20 feet high.
Construction costs for this second Tennessee State Penitentiary exceeded US$500,000 (US$13.7 million in 2016 dollars), not including the price of the land.
Join the Mailing List
Big Brothers Big Sisters 5K Walk/Run
TDOC is a proud supporter of Big Brothers Big Sisters. Get an up close look at the TN State Prison while supporting a great cause.