Family of murdered Tennessee Department of Correction official files second suit

By: - June 13, 2022 7:00 am
West Tennessee State Penitentiary (Photo: Tennessee Department of Correction)

West Tennessee State Penitentiary (Photo: Tennessee Department of Correction)

The daughter of a prison administrator who was brutally raped and murdered on the grounds of  West Tennessee State Penitentiary has filed suit against Warden John Fitz and unnamed corrections officers, alleging systemic failures led to her mother’s death  — including woefully inadequate staffing and a culture that encouraged guards to downplay sexual assault and harassment.

Debra Johnson was off-duty and in her home on the grounds of the Lauderdale County facility when inmate Curtis Watson was able to escape notice of correctional officers. Watson drove a golf cart to Johnson’s home, where he strangled, raped and murdered the 38-year veteran employee of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Johnson was 64 years old at the time of her death.

Watson then lead law enforcement officials on a five-day manhunt before his capture.

Debra Johnson. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections)
Debra Johnson. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Corrections)

Watson had been assigned violent offender status when he first entered the prison in 2012, but was later designated a “trusty” inmate, allowed to roam the grounds without supervisions as part of his work detail as a mechanic despite a history of violence. He was serving a 15-year sentence for the kidnapping, rape and assault of his wife in 2012. Watson also had a prior conviction for aggravated child abuse, the lawsuit said.

Pay cuts for prison guards and a new staffing schedule requiring 171.1 hours during each 28-day period before overtime pay kicked in resulted in an exodus from already-understaffed prisons in 2015, the lawsuit said.

The understaffing was particularly acute at the West Tennessee facility, which had the highest vacancy rate of any state prison in 2017, when 20% of positions went unfilled. By the time of Johnson’s death, state officials had barely made a dent in hiring correctional officers.  The facility had 295 corrections officers working, with 69 vacancies — or about 19% of unfilled positions. It has the capacity for more than 2,500 inmates.

“WTSP was not equipped to adequately monitor its inmates, particularly trustees with violent histories such as Inmate Watson,” the lawsuit said.

The Tennessee Department of Correction has also come under scrutiny in recent years for underreporting prisoner assaults. Instead, officials have been encouraged to write up or reclassify assaults as nonviolent incidents, or “provocations” to artificially deflate its violent incident statistics.

“TDOC actively chose to downplay inmate violence rather than address the underlying issues and reduce violence as would ensure the safety and security of inmates and correctional officers,” the lawsuit said.

A 2020 audit by the Tennessee Comptroller found the failures reached the top of the agency, with state leaders failing to operate “safe and secure prisons.”

The lawsuit alleges the warden and other correctional officers were fully aware of the threat Watson posed in the months, weeks and days leading up to Johnson’s murder.

In the week prior to Johnson’s death, Watson had told a fellow inmate that Johnson wanted to have sex with him, a comment made within earshot of correctional officers, who failed to intervene to limit Watson’s movement or have him evaluated by mental health experts. On the day Johnson was murdered, Watson disappeared from his job post without notifying correctional officers sometime before 8:45 a.m. on August 7, 2019. He was not declared missing until 10:30 a.m. Johnson’s body was found at 11:30 a.m. after she did not report for work.

In recent years, the Tennessee Department of Correction has come under scrutiny for underreporting prisoner assaults in a move to artificially deflate its violent incident statistics.

A correctional officer who had had spied the golf court at Johnson’s home that morning had knocked on her door, but left after no one answered. The lawsuit contends that had that officer made an effort to enter the home Johnson may have been found alive and given life-saving medical treatment.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. Western District Court, is the second brought by Johnson’s daughter, Shernayne Johnson. A lawsuit filed in 2020 seeking $5 million in damages made similar claims, but named Fitz in his official capacity and the state of Tennessee as defendants.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker ruled in that case that state officials are protected by sovereign immunity that shields state agencies and officials being sued in their official capacity for damages. Attorneys for Johnson refiled suit the same day, naming Fitz and unknown correctional officers as individuals. The suit does not specify the dollar amount of damages being sought.

In June 2021, Watson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for Johnson’s murder, with an additional 25 years on other charges connected to the crime.

The Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville was renamed in Johnson’s honor. It is now called the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center for Women.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.