The Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex is closing, err, I guess they are unlocking all the doors. I have only been inside Brushy Mountain once. I took off my shoes and jacket, walked through a metal detector and had all my belongings x-rayed and snooped through. No. That was the last time I got on an airplane. When I visited the prison, I told the guard at the gate that I was there for a tour and without asking my name or checking my ID, he let me park my car and enter the prison offices. I locked everything in my car except my driver’s license and car keys. The actual building looks like a large castle surrounded by a forest. The drive there reminds you how rural the area is and the homes so very close to it make it feel like a Medieval Feudal system with all the small homes housing the staff who maintain the Noblemen’s castle. In the prison office, they copied my name off my license and I signed a waiver to enter the facility. I left my car keys at the office desk and joined a group of less than a dozen people to tour the prison.
I don’t know what other people expect when they visit a prison for the first time, but I was surprised by how calm and peaceful it was. I actually felt much safer than I probably should have felt. The guards were extremely social and answered every stupid question that we asked them. They all seemed to not only love their jobs, but felt extremely proud to be working the same place their fathers and grandfathers had worked. They quickly showed us the grounds while all the prisoners were kept locked in their cells. A silent wave of liberal guilt washed over us as we realized the disruption our tour was creating to the inmates schedules and valued outside time. The guard pointed to a corner of the yard. “That’s where James Earl Ray got out. We learned a lot from that escape.”
The last stop on the tour was the actual cell block. When the prison tour was arranged, there was only one request made of our group. “Please dress modestly.” That statement was left for us to interpret ourselves. The result was that on an 80-something degree southern day, almost everyone wore long pants and a second shirt over their tee. We were extremely uncomfortable. The prisoners, on the other hand, varied from fully clothed to completely naked. Some of them even performed solo porn shows for the visitors. Maybe they would have been doing that even if we weren’t there. I don’t want to know. I know that if my biggest concern while inside a prison was standing far enough back that I wouldn’t be a participant in some kind of performance art with body fluids, I was seriously ignorant. I don’t lack an internal personal danger alarm system. When I was doing the same tour and interview at Taft Youth Detention Center, I remained acutely aware of my proximity to armed guards and locking rooms. Brushy Mountain was calm. Taft was observably volatile.
I’ve heard several different suggestions for the future of Brushy Mountain. Some people think it’s dreary and needs to be demolished. It’s neither ugly nor depressing. Some people want it to be a tourist attraction. It’s much too far out of the way to succeed as a museum/historical site. Someone suggested it be used to house the homeless population. That is ridiculous in an area with no services to help the homeless population and I find the suggestion deliberately mean spirited. I haven’t heard it said, but surely someone has thought about converting it to a church. The building IS shaped like a cross. Otherwise, I think it should be a movie set. When I visited, it felt like stepping into a movie. Other-worldly. The area around it is beautiful and the community is comprised of tightly-knit people who would make great extras. They have certainly spent the past 113 years working together.