Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Mark T. Carleton


Tennessee built its first state penitentiary in Nashville in 1830 on Sixteenth and Church Streets on land that is now a downtown parking lot. Revisions in the criminal code made many offenses punishable by imprisonment instead of corporal or capital punishment, and the convict population grew steadily. Continuing concern was expressed by the General Assembly that the penitentiary be self-supporting, and much effort was expended at all levels of government to accomplish that end. This study covers the history of approximately the first one hundred years of the Tennessee State Prison System. It begins with an overview of the criminal justice system in the state prior to the building of the state's first penitentiary, details the history of the penitentiary system, and concludes with a summary of the first one hundred years. Public opinion as gleaned from the state's major daily newspapers, political opinion as determined from the records of the Tennessee General Assembly and addresses by the state's governors, and organizational history as determined by official reports and records of various management entities that have controlled Tennessee prisons are all intertwined in this history. Individual chapters place particular emphasis on convict labor and the outcries from organized labor against the "travesty" of allowing common criminals to compete with free labor, women and juveniles in the prison system, and the system of prison discipline. Additional chapters emphasize the racial overtones of Tennessee prisons following the end of the Civil War, convict subcultures, and the guard force over time. The summary concludes that four major problems faced the Tennessee prisons from the outset in 1831 and were still there at the end of the first one hundred years. The problems are discussed in detail in the final chapter. The work also poses new question to be answered by an additional study now in progress of the Tennessee prison system since the 1930s.