Staff Photo by Patrick Smith
Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex prisoner James Slagle talks about serving his 318-year prison sentence on Friday. Mr. Slagle has served 41-years in the Tennessee Correctional system. The complex should be fully decommissioned in June, with most of the staff moving to the new Morgan County Correctional Complex.
PETROS, Tenn. — James Slagle came into the Tennessee prison system before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
He is still there.
He’s spent more than half that time at Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, which will close this year. Mr. Slagle likely will move to the newly expanded Morgan County Correctional Complex.
“I hate to see Brushy close,” Mr. Slagle said in an interview Friday. “For the simple reason no one gets in trouble here. You’re still in prison ... but it’s a laid back way to do the time.”
Mr. Slagle was at the prison in 1977 when Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray escaped with six other inmates.
He said the escape had been planned for weeks and he was offered a spot on the break. He turned down the chance because he knew the manhunt for Mr. Ray would be extensive.
Besidess, he’d already escaped once.
Mr. Slagle mailed himself out of prison once by practicing yoga until he could fit in an 18-inch by 18-inch box he’d taped together from two cardboard boxes. Other inmates helped by loading him onto a mail truck.
He said he would have made a decent escape if he hadn’t run into a guard hunting in the forest near where he ran.
Mr. Slagle makes no excuse and asks for no sympathy. He killed a man in 1968 after he and a friend got into a fight. He says rage boiled out of him after hard time in the Indiana and Kansas prison systems, and when the man he fought with tried to strike him with an ashtray, he thought the victim had a gun and killed him.
He became so violent, he said, in prison — where he had to act tough, cold and mean.
“If you play a role long enough, you become what you are pretending to be,” he said.
Years later when he was allowed off site to attend college classes, he said, he found something worth pursuing.
“I learned to like myself again,” he said.
Mr. Slagle is eligible for parole in 2012; he will be 76 years old.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...