Interstate section renamed for slain corrections officer

    Interstate 440 through Nashville. (Photo: TN.gov)
    Interstate 440 through Nashville. (Photo: TN.gov)

    A section of Interstate 440 near Nashville has been renamed for  a corrections officer killed in the line of duty. 

    On Sunday, state Sen. Brenda Gilmore organized a car parade in honor of Debra K. Johnson on I-440, which will now be known as Debra K. Johnson Memorial Parkway. Friends and community members were invited to accompany Johnson’s adult children, Mychal Austin and Shernaye Johnson. 

    State Sen. Brenda Gilmore (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
    State Sen. Brenda Gilmore (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

    “I’m really pleased to be a part of this and humbled,” said Gilmore.

    Johnson worked as a correctional officer at the Tennessee Department of Correction and Tennessee Prison for Women since 1981. Her career spanned more than 38 years, where she rose through the ranks from corporal until she was eventually promoted to deputy warden of the Tennessee Prison for Women in 2005. In 2009 she was named deputy warden of the Lois DeBerry Special Needs Facility.

    In 2019, Johnson was found dead in her home located on the grounds of the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled. Investigators later identified Curtis Ray Watson, a convict with a violent history, as the perpetrator after a 5-day manhunt. He currently awaits trial for Johnson’s murder, according to the Commercial Appeal.

    “She lost her life doing what she loved,” said Gilmore. “And it’s only fitting that we pay this tribute to her for her family to show our appreciation.”

    Deborah K. Johnson (Photo: TN.gov)
    Deborah K. Johnson (Photo: TN.gov)

    Johnson’s family has filed a lawsuit alleging that the state was to blame for Johnson’s death, seeking $5 million from those responsible for supervising Watson during his work detail. After escaping, Watson murdered Johnson and then escaped prison grounds.

    In 2020, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order renaming the Tennessee Prison for Women to the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center.

    Parade goers met at Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, located at 1203 9th Ave. in Nashville.