PETROS (WATE) – Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, later called Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, was established in 1896 and operated until 2009.
The large maximum-security prison near the town of Petros in Morgan County made a name for itself with notable inmates including James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr. The state officially handed over the keys to the prison in 2015 and the Morgan County Economic Development board is working to turn it into a distillery, museum, RV trailer park and restaurant.
In the meantime, the Brushy Mountain Group is opening up the prison for paranormal tours. The tours start at 11:00 p.m. with a short guided tour. After the tour, guests are free to investigate on their own or with a guide until 6:00 a.m.
Tour guides Tiffany White and Jaime Brock let me tag along on a tour to learn more about the prison. Both White and Brock are believers and both of them have seen apparitions at the facility.
“Just last week, I followed one through the breeze way into the office area, followed him in thinking I was following one of the people on a tour. I was kind of doing my own thing, so when I look up he wasn’t there. No one was there,” said Brock.
White said has come to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary on several different occasions and heard voices. One night she said she was with Brock and she heard a third male voice.
“Once you see for yourself it is kind of hard to go back. I mean what if? I like to ask people who don’t believe. I mean what if there is something interacting on the other side. I mean how is that not interesting. It is fascinating to me,” said White.
Armed with flashlights, we made our way into the prison. As I walk down the hallway to the auditorium I can feel the cool limestone walls of the prison that was literally built by those serving time there. The first place White and Brock took me is up to the auditorium where prisoners liked to watch picture shows.
“The inmates would get to go in and watch a movie. Of course if you’re sitting there watching a movie that makes you vulnerable,” explained White. “There where two that we were able to get their throats cut and died in there.”
In the auditorium we sat in a circle in a wood paneled room. Brock pulled out something called a “dowsing rod,” which my tour guides explained to me has been used for centuries to find everything from graves, underground water to spirit activity.
“The ones we use,” said Brock. “They’re in a little slot, so there is no way that we can make them move, they just kind of do their own thing. You can actually feel the force, you know, once they get close enough. You can feel them moving the rods and it’s one of my favorite things.”
Sitting cross-legged with the rods in each hand, Brock asked, “Is there anyone with us? Will you cross the rods for us if there is?”
The rods did seem to almost magically cross to answer questions. Next White turned on music and the rods seemed to vibrate in rhythm to “Only You” by the Platters.
Then, White put out a cigarette and asked the spirits to touch the light and she would give you a cigarette. She explained to me that the cigarette is a “trigger object.” She says objects that the prisoners could relate to in life typically spike activity.
“The reason that asked a cigarette there is that one of the inmates that had his throat cut, that was his last request as he was dying. He asked for a cigarette before he passed on, so that kind of triggers that,” said Brock.
Jack and Linda Bridges were on the tour with me. They ride motorcycles by the prison and decided to take the tour with some friends. Jack Bridges said he got goose bumps when he saw the shadow run through the light.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw something move and it was just like someone walked by, but there wasn’t nobody there. We were all in one spot and there wasn’t anything in-between the light that was showing and the shadow,” said Jack Bridges.
The spirit apparently ran right behind me, which I did not care for. Brock explained to me that she typically gets the most activity out of the auditorium on her tours.
“It’s also the same level that the guards were taken hostage and the black inmates were shot and killed there,” said Brock. “There have been a lot of hangings there. The hospital is in that area. There was a tuberculosis outbreak, there was a lot of syphilis, dysentery, so that whole area would have been filled with that kind of stuff.”
Next on the tour, we went into what is referred to as the “hole,” which is solitary confinement. They didn’t let me shoot inside the “hole,” because they said the ghost is camera shy.
After the hole, we went into the cafeteria and Brock and White set up their gadgets. They have something they call an EDI Research Box, which White says measures ambient temperature, electromagnetic fields and movement.
“The theory is that spirits can manipulate the electromagnetic field so when they do that those blue lights flash. It actually takes readings every 3-4 seconds, so it is constantly adjusting to the environment,” said White.
The lights turned different colors as White and Brock talked to the ghosts. After the cafeteria, we were each divided up into different cells on the third floor with gadgets.
My gadget started turning colors, then went dark when a man started shooting a BB gun in the hallways. Our guides told us the BB gun was in order to stir up the ghosts. What’s more, I heard clear whistling, which was really odd, because nobody admitted that they had whistled.
Next we ventured into the courtyard, where my guides told me we found the ghost of “Bonnie” sitting on a bench. White and Brock told me they don’t know why their is a female ghost at the prison, but she loves music and will dance to the beat of music in the courtyard.
“They can look different. Some of them have your classic ghost look where they’re kind of transparent, but we get a lot of sightings up here where it looks completely solid and you’ll think it is a person,” said White.
Most of the people that left after my tour were believers, but whether you’re a believer or not, everyone agreed they loved learning about the history of the prison.
“Just for the historical element of it,” said Linda Bridges. “This prison was built on the backs of the men who served here.”