Debra Johnson: A Tribute to the Tennessee Correctional Employee

Debra Johnson

Tennessee Department of Corrections

Authorities announced that Debra Johnson was the Tennessee correctional employee found dead just before inmate Curtis Ray Watson was discovered missing. Johnson had worked for the state of Tennesse for 38 years and believed in helping prisoners leave the prison facilities in better shape than they were when they entered the system. Watson is still on the run and authorities are concerned he may have played a role in Johnson’s death. He’s considered extremely dangerous.


1. Debra Johnson Had Worked for the State of Tennessee for 38 Years

Debra Johnson, 64, was the Correctional Administrator for the West Tennessee Region, according to TN.gov’s website. She had been an employee of the state of Tennessee for 38 years, the Tennesee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) shared. She began her career in 1981 as a correctional officer. In her current position, she oversaw the Mark Luttrell Transition Center, the Northwest Correctional Complex, the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, and the Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center, News 4 reported.


2. She Was Found Dead in Her Home on the Prison Grounds

Around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Johnson was found dead in her residence on the West Tennessee State Penitentiary grounds in Henning, TBI shared. There were signs of foul play in her home, but authorities did not elaborate. The TDOC has 8 to 12 homes on TDOC grounds that administrators can live in, News 4 reported.

The facility went on lockdown after her body was found, and that’s when it was discovered that Curtis Watson was missing from a work detail.

State Rep. Chris Hurt said in a statement about Johnson’s tragic death: “Our community has suffered an immeasurable loss today at the hands of a violent criminal who clearly has no regard for human life. Please continue to pray for the family and loved ones of our fallen Department of Corrections employee and for those working to apprehend the individual responsible and bring him to swift justice.”

TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker told News 4: “I want to extend my condolences to the family of Miss Johnson, who was a victim of this homicide. Tonight, the TDOC is working closely with the TBI, the Department of Safety and local law enforcement agencies to search and to find Curtis Ray Watson, who is listed as the person of interest in this homicide. Rest assured we will find this offender and bring justice to the family of Debra Johnson.”


3. She Spoke at the Tennessee Department of Corrections’ Graduation Last Year & Called the Graduates ‘Superheroes’

Johnson had a long history with the state of Tennessee, having served with the state for 38 years. In August 2018, just a year ago, she was the special speaker for the Tennessee Department of Correction’s graduation. In her speech, she compared the graduating class to superheroes.

She told the graduating class: “You never know when you will have to use your special training. Now that you have gone through your training you are prepared to serve and protect your community. The Tennessee Department of Correction is proud to have great officers on our team.”


4. She Was Warden of the Tennesse Prison for Women When a New College Program Was Started, & Said She Wanted Offenders To Leave in ‘Better Shape Than … When They Came to Us’

Johnson had a heart for helping inmates find a better path in life.

In 2011, Lipscomb University established its first Associate of Arts degree program for inmates at the Tennessee Prison for Women. Johnson, who was the TPFW Warden at the time, said about the new program: “Ninety-seven percent of all inmates in state custody will return home one day. While the Tennessee Department of Correction is committed to operating safe and secure prisons, we also want to make sure the offenders leave in better shape than they were when they came to us. Our partnership with Lipscomb University gives them the opportunity to lead successful lives upon release.”


5. Curtis Watson Escaped the Prison on a Tractor

TBI

Curtis Watson was a minimum custody offender, News 4 reported, and had a job as a farm laborer at the prison. He was discovered missing from his work detail. There hadn’t been any disciplinary action against him since 2007, when he didn’t report to assigned classes or duties. He escaped from the prison on a tractor that was found a mile from the prison.

Curtis Ray Watson, 44, is a white male, 5’11”, 140 pounds, with brown eyes, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The last time he was seen, he was wearing jeans and a blue TDOC shirt.

There hadn’t been any disciplinary action against him since 2007, when he didn’t report to assigned classes or duties. Watson was in prison since 2013 and was not due for release until May 2025. He was convicted of aggravated kidnapping.  According to WMC5, he also had previous convictions for aggravated assault, aggravated rape, and aggravated child abuse. His record also included tampering with government records and a violation of protection order, News Channel 5 reported.

The public is asked to stay vigilant. If you have information or if you see Watson, call 911 or  1-800-TBI-FIND. Do not approach Watson; he’s considered extremely dangerous by authorities.