thoughts and images from out of the way places
Forgotten America, Travel

A Day in Prison {Abandoned Tennessee State Prison}

Still standing proud

My love for abandoned buildings recently led me to the old Tennessee State Prison, an imposing castle like structure deserted for nearly twenty years now.  This historic compound sits high above Cockrill Bend on the Cumberland River.  When the prison was first opened in February of 1898 it was well outside the city limits of Nashville.  Today an industrial area slowly encroaches the prison borders.  These borders are still well guarded by thick prison walls topped with concertino wire and thick iron gates that would not look out of place in a medieval castle.  If this was not enough to protect this legendary site, guards from Tennessee Department of Prisons make regular patrols of the grounds.

Like most historic structures the abandoned Tennessee State Prison has a storied past.  From the very beginning there were problems at TSP.  Two cell blocks containing 800 single occupancy cells were immediately inundated with 1,403 prisoners on the very first day the prison was opened.  To further aggravate the overcrowding was a lack of ventilation and the ensuing sanitary violations.

During the operation of the prison several riots occurred including one where prisoners blew out the end of a cell block killing one inmate and allowing others to escape, never to be recaptured.  On a later date inmates took over the segregated white wing of the prison for 18 hours before guards regained control.  One of the more notorious  escape attempts occurred when inmates seized control of a switch engine in 1907 and drove it through a prison gate.  Notable riots also occurred in 1938, 1975 and 1985.

At least 125 people were executed in Tennessee between 1916 until 1960.  During this time period executions by electrocution took place at the old Tennessee State Prison. While many prisoners were incarcerated here, probably the most famous was James Earl Ray who was convicted of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Since the closing of the prison several movies have been shot at this location, including The Green Mile, Attica, and The Last Castle.

The day that I explored this urban fortress was windy with foreboding clouds.  Nashville had endured a week of severe thunderstorms with record setting rains.  The first

Door to death row

building that I entered was the dilapidated death row building. This was the most unassuming building from the outside, and was very dark and dank inside.  Water dripping from the ceiling echoed throughout the deserted cells.  It was especially eerie as I walked into the tiny room where the electric chair once sat.  As I continued to poke around through the detritus of the past I was forced to use my flashlight to spotlight areas to even get my camera to focus in the dim rooms.  Some of the places, such as the processing rooms between cell block B and C were so dark I could not see my hand in front of my face, and I was not sure what my camera had captured until later.  All in all this was a very interesting place to spend a summer afternoon.  Here are some of the photos of my day in prison.  Hope you enjoy!

Abandoned Tennessee State Prison

Closed for over 20 years

Death Row Cell Walk

Chair and Children’s book


Notice the slot in cell door where prisoners received their meals

Leftmost walk on death row

Typical death row cell

No way out from here

Middle Hall

Prison Art

Administrative office, death row

Front Room, Death Rlow

Office Desk and Rain Water

Execution Room

Cell Lock

This unassuming building is death row

Administration and cell blocks

Rear of Prison

Prison wall and gate

thick doors to death row

Cell block C

Cell block D

Prison Yard with old basketball goal

Prison yard building and guard station

death row

Cell Block C

cell doors

peeling paint

years of paint peeling

Arts and Crafts Cell?

Cell Block C

light and texture

Red Door

lock close up

Counting down the days until freedom


walkway detail

old water fountain

emergency route plan

Breaker box

snake in Cell block C

second floor walk

guard window into cell block

doorway to processing room between cellblocks

the only heat for the entire cellblock

prison yard building

prison church


secret garden

evening light

cell 1


This old fan provided the only air circulation to the prisoners

guard post

work building

Strip room, so dark I had to use my flashlight to focus

Prisoners were processed and searched here

steep stairs

windows and walkway

office desk

old cot and orange chair

desk in cellblock D

for some reason this looks like it should belong in a medieval theme park

Health Center

Built to instill fear in prisoners

Entrance to abandoned Tennessee State Prison

administration building

old bleachers in prison yard

self portrait

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  1. My Dad was the Superintendent of the Hospital of the Tennessee State prison from 1956 until 1966. I lived on the Prison owned grounds from birth till I was 9 years old. I have a lot of memories from there and recently my dad passed away. He was always going to write a book but never did.

  2. Greetings! I’ve been following your site for a long time now and finally got the courage to
    go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Tx! Just wanted to
    tell you keep up the good work!

  3. Excellent pictures! I had spent a few years of my life in Huntingdon State Prison in Pennsylvania…My very close friend lost his life in a car accident because of me. Anyway, every picture I’d viewed brought memories back from the place I’d spent years in…the resemblance is eerie, to say the least. It’s too bad you can’t step foot on the cell blocks at Huntingdon…the scary part there is that there is still inmates living in nearly the exact same conditions as depicted in your photographs. Oh, I’ve stories to tell.

  4. Stunning pictures! I’ve been wanting to visit the TSP for a while to work on a series for my photographic imaging degree. Like everyone else, I was wondering who you contacted to get access to the prison. If you could please share that information i would really appreciate it.


  5. This is extremely attention-grabbing, You are an very knowledgeable doodlekit. We have registered ones give food to and check ahead of time to be able to inside search for added of this amazing write-up. Also, I have embraced your web site at my social support systems

  6. Hello! I am a senior in college and I am a Criminal Justice Major. I love this major and I also love the history of things! I would love to find out more about TSP. I was hoping that you could e-mail me and we could discuss it. I would love to hear about it and I would love to go see it myself personally. I loved the pictures and they are wonderful. Great job!!
    Here is my e-mail:

  7. Wonderful pics thanks for sharing

  8. i was wondering how my husband and i could get access into this old beautiful prison, our anniversary will be coming up and would love to do this with him. my email is laurenlistenberger@gmail

  9. Thanks for reminding me of just how lucky I am now. I lived there for almost a year back in the early 80′s. Really not a lot changed for it was a dump even back then, too many years on the old place. I hate seeing it go down like this for I do love our old buildings no matter what they were or even the fact it was a dark time in my life. We had another old prison in West Tennessee (Fort Pillow) spent most of my time there. Thanks again…RJ

  10. I want to tour this prison either Oct 4th or 5th and I can’t find a contact. How do I get tickets or whom do I contact to tour this interesting old place?

  11. Melanie,

    Hello, I was wondering some info on TSP. Could you please email me the info, of who it might be that I would need to contact to explore this old building? Please thank you so much

  12. Where are the sections that the movies were made in? The prison looks to be in pretty bad shape. I sure don’t recognize any of the sections from either the Green Mile or The Last Castle (both are my favs)

    • I remember it very well from Green Mile, never seen The Last Castle.

  13. My Great Grandfather “Isaac Jacob West” was an inmate here from 1913 to 1922, and moved to Brushy Mountain State Pen in East Tennessee.

  14. I am with a team in Fayetteville, TN and i am very interested in doing a tour or investigation of this property. Is it open to the public or does anyone know the owner? Thanks :)

    • state of tn is the owner of this prison u may want to check with the office of the prison commissioner

  15. I LOVED LOVED LOVED seeing these pics. I was a C.O. for 16 years….not at this prison but I still enjoyed. Thank you so much!!!

    • I worked at this prison from 89 to the process of the closing of it. yes the pics brought back memories of friends and co-workers some who have passed away now. I worked in what she calls cell block c or as i know it Unit 2

  16. My father was the warden at the prison from 1939-1946. We lived on the grounds. they were beautiful with magnolia trees everywhere, fish ponds and lots of flowers tended by the trustee prisoners. They were my friends and I had amazing adventures while living there. I went back to visit several year ago. I called it my castle.

    • I am a crime author who is working on a piece for both and regarding the old prison. I want to speak to anyone who worked at the facility or was incarcerated there, or who is close to someone who was either “behind” the bars or “before.” Please contact me at …

  17. Hey! I don’t know if you will even see this because it looks like it has been a couple years since you have been on here, but I was wondering if you had a tour or if you just went there by yourself? I have heard it is under surveillance so I didn’t know if I could just like sneak in or whatever.

    If you or anyone that happens to see this know about getting a tour please let me know!



    • I wondered the same thing!
      I used to be a CO at the prison down the road and was told that this was not open to the public. I know that an officer stands guard from 6p to 6a and the building within the walls are used for storage.

  18. remarkable pictures of an historic location, thanks.

  19. I so much enjoyed these pictures… a sad way. I knew someone who spent numerous years there. It gave me something to visualize of what it might have been like.

    • I am a crime author who is working on a piece for both and regarding the old prison. I want to speak to anyone who worked at the facility or was incarcerated there, or who is close to someone who was either “behind” the bars or “before.” Please contact me at ..

  20. I was told by the TN Film Commission that only the exterior is accessible. How did you gain access to the interior?

    For those who needed the info, here it is.
    Gisela Moore
    Project Manager
    TN Film, Entertainment & Music Commission
    312 Rosa L. Parks Avenue, 3rd Floor
    Nashville, TN 37243
    (615) 741-3456

  21. Wow… These photos are amazing. Did you use any lighting?

  22. Melanie, Beautiful pictures. I am bearly getting into the field of the photography of abandoned buildings. I would love to visit this location. How do you go about gaining access?
    Keep up the great work.

  23. I remember this prison being there ever since I was a kid. I used to call it “The Castle” because of the shape and when I was kid, I thought it was the Castle made for the King and Queen but I didn’t know it used to be the prison of TN. Now my children called the old prison “The Castle”. I wish they would allow us to buy it and restore it as a historical site.

  24. Well sis, I was there for a short stay in 70′s and you missed so much about the old joint. No pic’s of the main yard, the cafeteria and the cell block that was up in the main yard where almost everyone that came in went through there. It was called the transition building, in fact, I belive it was the womans prison before that. I belive there is also an auditorium if I remember correctly. The ( church ) was really a chappel. There are so many memories that go through my head everyday of this place still after all these years. It’s very sad, even to me to see it looking like this. If you or any of the readers here are interested in anything I may know, please feel free to ask.

    • so why were you there and how long did you stay. do you have pics of this place when you were there. i live in the neighborhood of this place all my life.

    • I had an uncle there in some of the 70′s. I always wondered what it looked like. I am filled with emotion. He long ago passed away, but we loved him and still I wonder.

    • Do you remember a Captian in the Maxium security bulding named Robertson ?

  25. I took a Criminology class at MTSU in the mid 1970′s, and the class toured the inside of the prison with the warden leading us around. As we walked thru the prison yard, with the prisoners milling about, the warden commented that he felt perfectly safe doing this. Later, he sat down in the electric chair, but quickly assured us not to worry, it wasn’t plugged in. They counted us going in and out of the facility. I’m was glad I did it at the time. It was certainly educational. But I wouldn’t do it again, knowing how a “safe” situation can turn on a dime into a house of horrors. Great pictures. Thanks for sharing.

  26. I started working at the main prision which we called the walls in 1977 as a correctional officer working in the commissary. I had worked at H.G. Hills and knew how to run a cash register. After about a year I wanted to get out and work the units. Unit 1 was lock down for inmates that could not be in the general population. Units 2, 3, 4, and 5 were general population. Over the 5 years I worked there I worked all units and death-row. I also worked around James Earl Ray who was a rock man on death row. I met alot of interesting inmates while working there. I was also assigned to the workmen who built the hospital inside the walls. I would go in with the workers everyday stay with them until the left at the end of the day. It took about a year to construct the hospital and was a really nice facility. when I started there the inmates who worked in the metal and wood shop were let out first to eat and go to work. They made all the furniture and file cabinets for the state of Tennessee. It was an interesting place to work and I learned alot about people.

  27. I went to work at TSP>(The Walls) in 1984,although ther were female officers working there I was the 1st one to actually work the yards where the inmates were out.All others worked in areas not directly in contact with the inmates. I had some very harroring experiences there.Worked thru the riot in 85.Although it is in such a dissarray now I grant you, when we closed it down it was in fair condition, over the years of neglect it has fell to what you now see,When we closed it still had beautiful brass hand rails and marble stairs in the main bldg. It was a beautiful old place even then.Such a shame the state let it get in that condition. I was present when several of the movies were filmed.Including HBO Attica against the walls.That movie was so very realistic of our riot in 85 that it was scary,although the film was actuall about the Attica new york prison riot.I also have some good memories and some pictures of the inside I wa allowed also to make a video of the Wall before it closed.A real experience.

    • yes there was some good times working there I remember working with you and this site was sent to me by a friend in nasville. you did lead the way for other female officers to work the units at the Walls.

    • You probably know my parents Bob Haven and Debbie Haven(Now Paulding)They both worked the yard around that time.

    • hi i am a journalism major at Belmont Univ in Nashville Tenn., and i am writing a story on the tsp adn would LOVE to sit down with you and talk about your time here. im sure there is a story there!
      alexandria hurst

  28. Loved your tour of the Castle. Me and my husband live in Nashville and see the breath takingly eerie building often.( We once took our own short tour.Just of the exterior though. So it has been wonderful to see from inside.) I will definatley look up any petitions to sign to save it, so much of our past just gets bulldozed. It’s a shame.Thank you again, good job!

  29. Hello Melanie,

    I was in the movie Last Castle which was shot at this prison. I am also in a Blues Brothers Tribute act. We want to shoot a video there, can you send me an email and tell me how you gained access from the TN State Film Commission? I LOVE your pictures!!!

    Thank you


  30. Fantastic shots. Am writing a piece on the origins of the Irish/English prison system. Visiting Nashville next year and would love to arrange a visit. If you could pass on contact details I would be extremely grateful. Email:

    Hope to hear from you!


  31. I have a shoot coming up and this would be the perfect location!!!!! please email me the info of the man you talked to so i can maybe get access to this place! :) Thanks for this post!

  32. I love your pictures! They are amazing! I actually had the privilege to get a private tour through the prison back in 2011 and it was unbelievable. I love old prisons!

  33. Thank you so much for doing this. I have pasted this place several times when working in Nashville and had no idea what it was. The pictures are amazing. Now I don’t have to wonder.

  34. Melanie,

    Hey, great work here. I am looking to do a band shoot at this location, and I am having trouble finding any contact info either through the state or private owners of the property. In my search, I came across your page. Can you help me with this? Thank you so much for your help. Cheers.

  35. “THE WALLS’ IS THE NAME THEY/WE CALL THIS GOD FORSAKEN PLACE. My husband was locked up here and he knew James Earl Ray personally. He always told me, “that man is innocent”. They/We always did and always will call M.L.K. Day, we call it… James Earl Ray Day. Lol. and he said that it was not labeled as A, B, C, D. Instead it was Units 1, 2, 3, 4 and Divisons 5 & 6. He also said the place wasnt in much better shape then, than it is in your phoos here. Also, there was not a church. Thank you for sharing these. He has alot of history and stories here.

  36. Thank you for sharing these pics. Honestly I have not been in that in years. I use to call that my 2nd home. I had family members that were correctional offericers there. I have so many memories of that prison that it is unreal. I cried the day they closed it. I still live close to there and still call it my castle. I often just stare at the building. I wish I had the money to just buy the property and everything and fix it up and turn it in to a hotel or something just to get people to come in there. I know it is hauted but that is another thing I love about it. There is a page on facebook for yall to like called save the prison. It has the pic of the front of the prison on the page.

  37. I’m one of two founders of Tell City Ghost Hunters and was wondering if they let paranormal groups inside this location.Checkout our page @ Thanks TCGH

  38. This photos are FAB.U.LOUS…you’ve got talent and balls…LOLOL…great job!

  39. I know you are probably tired of people asking, but would you mind emailing me details on who exactly to contact with the Tennessee Film Commission? You have some wonderful pictures of this structure!!

  40. Great photos. I’ve never seen the place, but feel as if I’ve been there. You can almost smell the dankness, and hear the misery. Glad I didn’t know anyone sent here!

  41. These are amazing! I am in love with old abandoned places and will be moving to Nashville this fall! Can’t wait to see and explore new places!

  42. Melanie:

    I live in Nashville and have been NEAR that place, but never in there. I looked it up online today and found a few “decent” pics from there, but yours were so great it actually gave me chills and kinda made my chest tighten up a bit. I love old abandoned places too, and would like to be able to check it out… but I might have to take a valium or xanax or something before I ever went in there!

    Your pics definitely captured a “vibe!”

  43. Hi! Could you please tell me what steps you took in order to gain access? You can call me at 8652065864 or email Thanks!

  44. These pictures are awesome!! Could you possibly (and I apologize because you’ve probably had tons of people ask you about this) email me about how you gained access to the prison? Many people say that without a large film production it would be impossible, but I would love to have access for me and a small film crew for a short independent film only for a day.

    Thank you!!

  45. Can someone tell me the address of the prison or how to get there?

    • please if you would like to know call 17316075392

  46. Has anyone been able to get into this place anytime soon?

    • I made it in with a group of friends last night. Not with permission so the decision is up to you. There’s a gap in the left side of the fence (front) and you can easily walk in the back. To get in the main building theres a large window on the left side of the building entrance with a small broken part to squeeze through. I’m gonna go inside during the day so I’ll update after. Btw there is a guard and patrol but you can seek by easily if you’re looking to explore without permission.

  47. Hi Melanie,
    I found your site today while searching for abandoned places to shoot near Nashville and was so inspired. I tried contacting the state film commission and was told that I need to prove the economic value of my visit. I am curious as to how you were able to work this out and would appreciate any pointers. We have similar interests in abandoned and forgotten places. Often the best places are those I find by serendipity. Sometimes I find new places through research.What works best for you? If you come to Memphis, we have many fabulous places to shoot.

    • Hi Brenda

      I think the thing that worked in my favor was actually stopping by the commission offices while on a visit to Nashville.

      I am constantly googling about abandoned places when I know I am going to take a certain route through an area. I love to explore these places. I would love to explore the large skyscraper that you have in Memphis that has been abandoned for some time.

      • I was born in Nashville and still live there today, that place has always scared the shit out of me and my friends. I would love the chance to go in as well, so much history. I hope we can save it. The photos are amazing…

    • Brenda,

      I am in the Memphis area and consider myself a budding urbexer. Can you send me an email at aerofan999(at) I am interested in some of the Memphis abandonments you may have information on. Thanks,


  48. My dad was in this prison for a few years in the 80′s hebhas agreed to go with me if i can gain access please send me the info!!!! Ur pics are unreal

    • Thank you Kristy. It is a fascinating place to spend a day. I got in touch with the Tennessee State Film Commission on Rosa Parks Blvd. in Nashville to get permission to go inside. Let me know how it goes!

  49. Hey Melanie! Your photos are absolutely amazing! I am a photography student in high school in the Nashville area and I was wonder how you got access to this building? Please email me details here :

    Thanks so much for your time!


  50. Good evening Melanie…
    Without even stepping foot in this prison, I feel like I have already been in there through your pictures. I have explored many abandoned buildings in Michigan as well as in other states. For me, it is fascinating to step into these buildings and just take it all in. I love to imagine myself in these structures back in it’s prime. I notice various individual’s who have posted on here have stated they have contacted The Tennessee Film Commission to no avail. I have also contacted them and have received no response. I am hoping you will be able to provide me contact information with the individual to whom you spoke with that granted you access to the prison. I will be visiting Tennessee later this year and have included this place as somewhere I’d love to visit and explore. My email is Thank you for your time and your pictures

  51. Melanie,
    Hi, my name is Jason Hale, and I just started a petition about 10min ago to save this prison. I saw on the news that they were either thinking about knocking it down or turning it into something ridiculous, and I feel that it should be preserved in its current state, and just be cleaned up enough to run tours in it. The place is to amazing to let this happen. If you wouldn’t mind signing my petition, I would really appreciate it. I love your pictures, they are probably some of the best I have seen of the place. If you wouldn’t mind sending me a private message to my email as to how you got in. My wife and I are into photography, and we have been dying to get into it just to take some pictures. I know you must have an insurance policy or something like that. Thanks for your time.

  52. Hey Melanie! Your photos are fantastic! I stumbled across your website searching for pictures of the Tennessee State Prison.My best friend and I have always been interested in this facility. I was wondering if you would share how you went about getting access? Also, was being alone a requirement? Anything you would be willing to share would be appreciated.

    you can email me at

  53. Melanie,

    I too would love to find out what the terms were of your access to the prison, and the name of the individual you talked with.

    I’m a college professor and would be interested in documenting this beautiful structure, and possibly bringing a small group of other professors with me.

    I’ve included my email and will gladly give you my cell number so that we may discuss this further.

    Your images are wonderful by the way! :)


  54. Your pictures are gorgeous!!! I have received the same “No” response when contacting the Film Commission about accessing the prison. Can you please email me and advise how I can go about getting inside there to play with my new lenses.

    Thanks in advance.

  55. I really enjoy your work. I have been urban exploring for yrs now and was a member of until the mounting rules, politics and arguments took the fun out of being a member. Your pics have the artsy value that’s gained by the talented photogs that urbex for awhile that bring out the beauty of a place that most would consider an eyesore. I have gained the same skill after shooting thousands of pics. Not all are like that but I get creative when I see the potential. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you would like to see my work, I could put together a collection of my better shots or I could send them to you in their entirety by location. They are all Tennessee locations and I’m sure you would like them. If you want to have a look, send me a email to and I will reply to it. Looking forward to our correspondence, -Rich West

    PS my Facebook is:!/profile.php?id=1008961958

  56. Hi Melanie -

    These pictures are awesome. You really captured some great shots. I live in Nashville and have driven past the old prison many times but have never been able to gain access to it. Would you mind letting me know what steps you took and who you talked to so that I could try to see the inside and take some pictures myself?

    Thanks, and I have really enjoyed the shots you took.

    My email is:

  57. Sorry Melanie, Misread the posts and got the wrong name. My apologies.

  58. Robin, your pictures are excellent and the Death Row set so different from the same old/same old I keep finding in my searches. I visited a Death Row inmate there in January 1982 and the Death Row Captain allowed me to go back on the row to meet the other inmates after visiting time was over. Ron was on the row that led directly to the execution chamber. It has been my wish to know the layout beyond the steel door at the end of the row which was as far as I could go. Also, I was not permitted to take my camera with me. Thank you for sharing these fantastic photos. If you have any more, I would very much like to see them.

    • Thank you so much Bernie. That’s very interesting that you were able to visit an inmate there. The area behind the steel door consisted of a back hallway that connected the cell rows with the execution chamber and a small viewing room just beyond that. This was a fascinating place to explore, and I’d love to go back one day to get to some of the areas that I didn’t make it to.

  59. Great work. I was there today (on the outside) and hope to be able to get permission to go inside for taking pictures. Places like this are so fascinating. Thanks a bunch for capturing those shots from the inside that we all would love to have the chance to get. You did a nice job!

    • Thank you so much Kristine. I love to explore abandoned buildings, and this place was a photographers dream. There are several other prisons that I would like to visit, but TSP was the most impressive one I’ve seen!

    • Thank you so much Kristine! It’s a beautiful place, they don’t make them like this anymore!

  60. Once again, Melanie, you have created an extraordinary collection of photographs. I’m an abandoned building aficionado myself and I love how you capture the ‘ghosts’ ( for lack of a better word) of the people who were once there without any humans in the pictures.

    I do have a question—How do you get access to a place like the prison? And does someone follow you around as you work?

    Keep finding unloved places, Mel….I can’t wait to see where you go with your camera next!

    • Thank you so much Holly! You always make my day! One of my very favorite things to do is to find an abandoned building that has not been restored and to spend the day exploring. I saw this particular prison when the girls and I were out and about in Nashville. It still has a manned guard house, so I drove up and talked to the guard about how I could get access. He told me that it was probably impossible, but gave me the name of the man at the Tennessee State Film Commission that is in charge of any media done at the prison. So, while we were in Nashville I stopped by his office, found out the requirements and within 2 weeks I had a contract to spend the day by myself at the prison. It was a blast!

      Now I have my eye on an old hospital!

      • I would love to find out what the terms were of your access to the prison. I wrote a letter to a gentleman in the film office for the very same reason only to be told that my project would have to basically bring significant revenue to the state in order to be considered (in other words a movie, music video, etc.).

        PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE private message me so we can discuss this offline! :)

        kmcintyre at gmail dot com

  61. LOVE THEM–they are so good. My favorites are the ones with the dark clouds in the background and the execution room is CREEPY!

    • Thank you so much girl! The clouds set the perfect mood to spend the day there. You would have loved it!

      • Melanie,

        Hello, I was wondering some info on TSP. Could you please email me the info, of who it might be that I would need to contact to explore this old building? Please thank you so much

  62. Pictures are really good!! Know you enjoyed it.

    • Thanks Robin~it was so much fun to take my time and explore all day. The place has some beautiful touches that modern prisons don’t have anymore. Of course modern prisons are up to code on safety and health violations. so I guess it evens out!

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