Capt. Debbie Lee Doss Cox works about as far behind the scenes as you can get. Behind fences, glass, walls and bars, too. Been doing it for almost 20 years. And loves every minute of it. “This is my home. I live and breathe it,” she says. “This is a career you must love because we’re not here for the paycheck. It matches my sense of compassion and core values.”
Cox is 46 and her compassion, core values and leadership instincts were instilled in her growing up on a Fentress County farm as part of a big family (she has six siblings) and her years of high school at the famed and prestigious Alvin C. York Institute in Jamestown.
Her work home today is a different kind of place, to say the least. She is called Capt. Cox at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Roger D. Wilson Detention Center on Maloneyville Road. It’s a big jail facility, housing approximately 806 inmates – 593 men and 213 women. Her title is assistant facility commander and she’s high on the leadership ladder, so to speak. She helps supervise a combined workforce of approximately 320 sworn and civilian employees working three shifts. “I’m all about being a leader and my commitment and passion is mentoring our officers, leading by example,” Cox said.
The York Institute had a profound impact on her. It is a nationally recognized and unique school and the only high school in the U.S. that is owned by a state – and in this case that’s Tennessee. The state welcomed the opportunity to maintain the school as a living memorial to York, honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his World War I heroics. York established the school in 1926 to give rural children the chance to obtain a high school education.
Along with its academic reputation, it is known for its Junior ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) military program. Historically ROTC was for the guys, but at some point, the women joined in. And in 1994 Debbie Lee Doss became the first-ever female Lt. Colonel Battalion Commander of the ROTC brigade and its highest-ranked member. As a cadet she served on the honor guard, the drill team and the rifle team.
Her KCSO life is all detention center and she’s just about done it all there. She joined in 2002, graduated from the department’s Regional Training Academy in 2003 and became a guard in the women’s pod at the jail. She was promoted to corporal in August 2012 while working as the disciplinary/grievance chair and as a corrections training instructor. While she was the kitchen manager, she earned new sergeant stripes in 2014 and two years later was bumped up to lieutenant where she worked as a shift commander and as the kitchen director.
She added the captain’s bars in 2017 and today her job includes being the director over grievance and disciplinary (two largest legal liability areas) plus the kitchen, laundry and shipping and receiving and serving as the merit council corrections representative.
In years past she was assigned as the PREA coordinator, accreditation coordinator, director over fire/safety/sanitation, commissary, custodial, kitchens and the money clerk. She also works as a COTA (Corrections Officer Training Academy) instructor. Cox is a 2021 graduate of the National Jail Leadership Command Academy and earlier this year completed the Facility Officer Compliance Development Basic Training.
Last month she was honored as one of the KCSO Officers of the Month.
“Being raised on our farm taught me about the importance of a work ethic and I have one to this day and love being busy,” she says. “We had cows, horses, goats, pigs and chickens and we had to take care of them all. We worked at home every day.”
After graduating from the York Institute, she married a military man and in 2000 she earned a degree (online) in Police Science from Roane State Community College and the University of Tennessee. In 2005, near the end of her first marriage, she had a daughter, Hayden, now 16 and being home schooled.
In 2012 she married retired KCSO Capt. Shannon Cox, who was the KCSO transportation director.
“I love working in corrections. I have some long days and, in my job, now I even come in during the afternoon and overnight shifts to make contact with our officers working those shifts to stay in touch,” she said. “Like I said, I live and breathe this work and understand its importance.”
Cox recalls those not-too-long-ago days of working the different shifts as a guard. “I worked the second shift for a long time from 2-10 p.m. and sometimes I’d have to pull doubles and work back-to-back shifts. I was juggling a lot here and at home but I never missed a beat. I’m always thinking about three steps ahead.”
The idea of working around and with dangerous inmates, male and female, does not faze her. There are no guns allowed inside the facility. Guards carry pepper spray and other chemical agents and tasers. And yes, she’s helped break up fights, too.
You never know what each day will bring, she says. “Fights. What we call critical incidents. Good, bad or indifferent these things seem to happen in bunches. You get to know many of the inmates. It’s challenging and not everybody can just let it go. We all have a calling to this kind of work.”
Where, we asked Capt. Cox, did this calling, this passion, this ability to lead and the work ethic come from in her life?
“It all came from my parents and grandparents and from a man named Jackson Carter,” she said. “He was the lead senior ROTC instructor at York and is the driving force of who I am as a leader. He is my mentor in life, my second father. He is retired now, but I call him every week to talk and it’s a blessing.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. Suggest future Our Town Hero stories at [email protected] or call him at 865-659-3562.