Nebraska corrections shows support to Tennessee during time of need

Nebraska corrections shows support to Tennessee during time of need

The news of the violent murder of a beloved Tennessee Department of Correction administrator swept across the nation like wildfire and struck home to the thousands of correctional officers, unit case workers and teammates who work at prison facilities every day including here in Nebraska.

“It’s heart wrenching,” said Jill Ourada, Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) safety coordinator and Honor Guard assistant team leader. “When I first heard what happened, I was mad. I might not know them in Tennessee, but I felt violated that someone murdered one of our own.”

NDCS sent Ourada and Lincoln Correctional Center Training Specialist and Honor Guard Team Leader Ladena Koch to Tennessee to represent Nebraska corrections at the funeral of Debra Johnson. Authorities believe incarcerated individual Curtis Ray killed the 64-year-old woman at her home on prison grounds and then escaped from the Western Tennessee State Penitentiary August 7th on a tractor. Ray has since been caught and charged with multiple offenses including first degree murder.

“Director Frakes reached out to us to see if we would be interested in doing this,” Ourada said. “It’s really an honor to be able to represent Nebraska during this time of need.”

The Nebraska team of two represented the state in showing support to the men and women of Tennessee corrections and Johnson’s family. Twenty states sent corrections members to Tennessee to pay their respects.

“It’s a very humbling experience,” said Koch. “To stand there and see so many states supporting them is very moving. I know Tennessee corrections staff were grateful to see so many of us there.”

“We understand what they go through,” said Ourada. “We want them to know Nebraska cares about them and that we’re here for them. We’re here for all correctional officers and teammates.”

Ourada described their role at the large funeral. Side by side, uniformed representatives from each state stood at attention when Johnson’s casket and family entered the Baptist church where the funeral was held. The funeral and burial ceremonies included taps, 21-gun salute, helicopter flyover and a last call over the radio.

“Being an Honor Guard member, we try really hard to stay focused and not cry during events like this,” said Ourada. As she looked down, Ourada spoke quietly, “but hearing that last call, it was hard.”

“The last call is the hardest part,” said Koch. “We wish this didn’t ever happen. You could tell Debra Johnson had a lot of family and friends. There was a lot of laughing and crying that day. She worked 38 years in corrections. Tennessee's staff are going through a really tough time. We're here for them to lean on.”

Koch says she tries to use these tragic experiences around the country as a way to help remind Nebraska's current and new teammates you can never become complacent. “It’s important we share these stories and experiences with people in our facilities. Tennessee corrections is going through a staffing shortage just like most states across the country. Many times, these types of situations can be avoided. We have to stay vigilant and aware of our surroundings at all times.”