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Family, friends bid goodbye to slain corrections administrator

The funeral service was held Friday for 64-year-old Debra Johnson, who worked for the DOC for nearly 40 years


Officers salute the casket during the funeral of Debra Johnson at Temple Church Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Johnson was a former Tennessee Department of Correction administrator slain earlier in the month.

Larry McCormack/The Tennessean via AP, Pool

By Kimberlee Kruesi
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Hundreds of family and friends gathered Friday in a Tennessee church to bid goodbye to a beloved correctional administrator killed last week, allegedly by an escaped inmate who sparked a four-day manhunt.

The 64-year-old Debra Johnson was remembered for being a devout Christian, with loved ones noting her willingness to greet church congregants with a big smile and even bigger hug.

Along with her faith, however, Johnson was also known for her decades of devotion to criminal justice. She worked for the state’s Department of Correction for nearly 40 years, overseeing wardens in multiple prisons in middle and western Tennessee. She was the first African-American and first woman warden at Turney Center Industrial Complex in western Tennessee and received multiple awards throughout her career.

“When many only saw the criminal, she saw the potential. She removed her title, put on the title of mother, mentor and friend,” Rosa Drake said while reading acknowledgment letters from former and current offenders, as well as from prison employees, church officials and friends. “We will be thankful to be part of her life.”

Authorities say the 44-year-old Curtis Ray Watson was on mowing duties at West Tennessee State Penitentiary on Aug. 7 when he went to Johnson’s home on prison grounds and killed her. Johnson’s body was found in the home with a cord wrapped around her neck, according to court documents. Authorities say Watson then escaped on a tractor.

Authorities arrested him four days later after he was recorded on surveillance cameras outside a home in Henning, 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the prison. Watson had been serving a 15-year sentence for especially aggravated kidnapping. He now could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder.

Multiple correctional staffers attended the service, wearing their uniforms while paying their respects. Some wore T-shirts with Johnson’s picture with the words “Put some respect on her name.”

The service was filled with prayers, Bible readings and — at times — laughter as Johnson’s children offered memories of their mother’s legacy, including the delight she got being called “the queen” by some of the inmates. But there were tears, too, as co-workers reflected on their last moments working with Johnson and sharing the surprise and hurt of learning of her death.

“It is difficult to be a woman of power, especially in a male dominant field and being an African American,” said Shernaye Johnson, the oldest daughter of Debra Johnson. “But yet, each day for 38 years, she was up for the challenge. ... I don’t want my mother to be a headline. I want people to change their hearts and minds.”

Along with her children and close friends who knew her, Gov. Bill Lee offered a brief tribute about Johnson during the funeral.

“In this setting, I feel very incompetent, as many of us would, because there are no words that I have that can squelch the grief or the deep sorrow of this tragedy,” Lee said. “And to all of those who knew her, there are no words that I have that can bring comfort or can bring peace or can bring hope. But I can stand here in confidence because we do know who alone can bring comfort, and we know his name, and it’s Jesus. And we don’t suffer and we don’t grieve as those who have no hope.”

Lee added that he was touched to learn that former and current inmates had created a memorial fund in Johnson’s honor.

“I get to speak on behalf of the 37,000 people who are in state government and we have lost one of our own,” Lee said. “And as governor, I have the profound honor of speaking on behalf of 6.7 million people, who are grateful for people like Debra Johnson. We honor her and thank the family for her life.”

It is important that all staff know and follow their agency’s policies on security, inspections, contraband and escapes
The prison has made changes to the way it handles inmates at risk of escape, including assigning one or two COs to monitor inmates when they are outside of their cells
Authorities believe the inmates broke out of the Bibb detention center through a damaged window and a cut fence
The inmate said he “would not have attempted to escape if the towers had been operational,” a report says