Success Story: Loretta Fish Liegal

Loretta’s traumatic early life led to drug addiction and prison. When she was given a second chance through commutation of her sentence, she made the most of it. Today she is a role model and an inspiration.

When Loretta Fish Liegal was in her early teens, her family’s house caught on fire. Her little sister Glenda was killed. Glenda was mentally disabled, and Loretta and another sister had been in charge of her while their mother was at a Bingo game. Family life at home fell apart completely: Loretta’s mother had a nervous breakdown and started drinking heavily. There was rarely food in the chaotic household.

For Loretta, it was too much. She left her childhood home for good, spending the rest of her teen years on the streets. “The only positive thing in my life during this time was my guitar. I sang, played, and wrote music.”

It would be the music that would help her many years later, when her life took another sad—but not entirely surprising—turn and she landed in prison for being part of a drug conspiracy. But before that, her life was shot through difficulty, including many bad relationships with men. By the time she was 21, she had an infant son and an abusive, cocaine-addicted husband.

She endured this man’s abuse for many years, including one beating that left her unconscious and with a fractured skull. “I had low self-esteem and no confidence. I was mentally and physically beat down,” Loretta says now.

Finally, in 1989, she met another man, who helped her get out of that marriage, promising to support and protect her. She moved in with him. Unfortunately, Ron was a methamphetamine user, and he introduced Loretta to the drug. She became addicted.

Ron got involved in a conspiracy to manufacture and sell methamphetamine. Loretta let him use her car to transport supplies occasionally, relayed telephone messages regarding drugs to him and his associates, and cooked and cleaned for several men who were staying in Ron’s trailer—and thus was swept into the conspiracy.

Ron was arrested in 1991, and Loretta falsely testified to his innocence at his trial. In 1994, Loretta was arrested. She admitted that she had lied during Ron’s trial, not only to help her boyfriend but also because she was ashamed to admit her involvement with drugs in front of her young son.

Loretta remained out on bail for a year and overcame her methamphetamine addiction. She dedicated herself to caring for her son and making a living. But that didn’t matter at sentencing. She was held accountable for approximately 48 pounds of methamphetamine, the amount that the government estimated was produced by the conspiracy, and Loretta was sentenced at the bottom of the guidelines to 19 years, seven months in federal prison.

Hers was one of the longest sentences out of anyone in the conspiracy. The kingpin of the enterprise, who cooked and sold methamphetamine in several states and earned more than $500,000 in six months, received only five years in exchange for testifying against Loretta and others. Ron received a shorter sentence than she did and died in prison.

From her first day in prison at the Federal Prison Camp for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, Loretta was determined to make the most of her time. “My faith in God has been tested many times. I always believed God had a plan for me and this was just part of the test.” She worked at the federal prison labor program (UNICOR) making clothing for federal employees. With a natural talent for poetry, songwriting, and guitar, during her off hours she taught others to play, many of whom she is still in touch with today.

In 2001, Loretta’s sentence was commuted by President Clinton, and she was given immediate release after seven years. “I was ecstatic!” she says. “But I had no place to go. Family was not an option, so I called a friend from childhood, Rita, who had once told me that when I got out she would help me. Rita and her husband Ed took me in, and I moved back to my hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”

While staying with Rita, she immediately started to rebuild her life. Eventually, she was able to get a Certified Nursing Assistant license. In 2014, Loretta earned her RN degree from Bluefield State College, graduating with honors and on the President’s List. She was also given an award for Clinical Excellence. Loretta was able to fulfill her dream of nursing through scholarships and loans.

Now Loretta works as a Registered Nurse, Clinical Nurse Manager at a local hospital. They are aware of her past and have embraced and encouraged her. They are proud to have Loretta as part of their management team.

But, Loretta points out, “Generally, it is a huge struggle to make it in the job world as a convicted felon. Sadly, I will forever have to relive and repeat something that happened 23 years ago whenever I fill out a job application. I will forever carry the label ‘convicted felon.’ It becomes a lifelong struggle for one bad mistake that has been dearly paid for long ago.”

While Loretta was in prison, she had a wonderful counselor, Werner Liegal. Once Werner retired from the Bureau of Prisons in 2003, they were married and moved back to West Virginia, just one mile from the federal prison where they first met. He has been a vital part of Loretta’s success. “Werner is the positive, encouraging, and loving support I needed in my life but never had.”

Her relationship with her now-grown son has been more of a challenge. “I saw my son a total of three times while in prison,” Loretta explains. “During the time I was away, he got into trouble numerous times and lived on the streets, like I did as a teen. And my son never met his father since he was the abusive man I left all those years ago. So he basically grew up without a parent.

“But now things have gotten a lot better. My relationship with my son today is better than it has ever been, but it’s still a work in progress. My bad behavior and my sentence really were hard on us. Lost time can never be recovered, especially considering I was his only parent. Our family was dysfunctional, and no one was there for him.”

Now she tries to be there as much as she can for him. He is married, and just bought his first home and is doing well.

“I have always tried to find the silver lining in all situations. I want to share what I’ve learned and what I’ve been through. I feel because of the blessings I have known, I am responsible to pay it forward. I want to help lift others up and guide them along their way. To solve any problem, we need to care, and I am not convinced our present criminal justice system cares. Twenty-year sentences to first-time, nonviolent drug offenders are handed out like lollipops at the bank.

“People turning to drugs all have a reason why. Change their focus and reprogram their priorities. They all need support and to know they are of value. They need to learn what is special about them and then learn to build on that.

“It can be done! You can go on as a convicted felon and make a life for yourself that is rewarding and successful. I faced many roadblocks, but they didn’t stop me.”

Loretta has a website, freebeyondbars.com, where you can learn more about her story.