After 27 Years In and Out of Prisons, Something Clicked at the Lockhart Correctional Facility for this Woman

As Leah O’ Neal gets ready to begin her shift at work, it’s dusk.  She does a pre-inspection on the 18-wheeler she’s about to drive. Leah is a truck driver in the oil fields of Odessa, Texas. But not so long ago, she was incarcerated in the Lockhart Correctional Facility, many miles away in Lockhart, Texas. Today her life is much different. Before she climbs inside the truck for her night run, she takes some time to share her story.

“A lot of recidivism stems from people going back to the same place, doing the same things, with the same people. First step, for me, was not going back, and going somewhere else.”

She spent 27 years in and out of prison due to her addictions. Then, she was sent to the Lockhart Correctional Facility where she took advantage of many of the life-changing programs available at the facility. It was then that she decided this was it.  She was not coming back to prison. Well, over a year later, with her parole behind her, Leah is sticking to her resolve. She’s not only stayed out of prison, but has turned her life into a model of productivity.

“It can work out,” she says, “it doesn’t always have to end up back where you started. You can have a good ending, a happy ending, a proper ending, you can live a proper life. There is such thing as a proper life. That’s what normal people do. And having a taste of normalcy is nice.”

Warden James Frawner and the staff at Lockhart remember Leah well.

“She did what she was supposed to do,” recalls Warden Frawner. “She followed the rules. She was always trying to improve herself. We’re all real proud of her because she’s done a good job since she’s left here.”

Upon her release, Leah took advantage of resources available to assist offenders. The Texas Reachout Ministry helped her with housing while Goodwill Industries gave her a job. She went to school and earned her CDL license, then got a job as a truck driver.

Warden Frawner remembers Leah’s determination.

“She would always tell me, she’d say, ‘warden, I promise you I’ll always do good as soon as I get out, ‘cause I’ve learned a lot here at Lockhart, and I wanna do good.’ The thing that stuck in my mind is she said, ‘as soon as I get off parole, I’m gonna get my CDL license, and I’m gonna become a truck driver.’ Of course, I was always encouraging her, saying, ‘that’s a good plan. You got a good plan, get out, get you a good job; that’s a good job’.”

Leah remembers the interaction as well.

“I told him all the time: Warden, I’m gonna get out. I’m gonna drive a CDL. Warden I’m gonna get off parole and get my CDL. I’m gonna go work in the oil field’.  (He would say) ‘Show me, don’t tell me, O’Neal’. Okay…here Warden Frawner, I’m showin’ ya.”

Leah goes on to praise the Warden.

“Warden Frawner at MTC. I’ve gotta give accolades to him, because the way he treated us girls at MTC. A lot of girls there, I’ve heard ‘em say the same things. ‘He treated us like ladies. He treated us like people.'”

Margaret Cantu is currently incarcerated at Lockhart. She adds her impressions. “I’ve been in prison five times, and I’ve never felt the ambiance that I feel here.  The guards are approachable, the warden’s approachable.”

“All over the walls,” Leah explains, “they have these murals up and down the halls. Warden Frawner puts positivity on any bare spot. It’s gonna have something positive on it.”

“They’re making me not want to come back, ever,” continues Margaret. “And they’re helping me to change my victim stance, my bad thinking. And they don’t have to, but they do.”

Warden Frawner praises all the staff at the facility. “It’s a team effort out here, and we’re all in it together. And the offenders know that, they know we’re here to help them.”

While warming up the truck, as the sun sets over West Texas, Leah O’Neal gazes out her window at the sinking horizon.

“I never, in my 27 years of my addiction, did I value sunsets and sunrises like I do today. It’s the little things in life that mean a lot.”

About Gregory S. Coleman Unit

Gregory S. Coleman Unit is accredited by the American Correctional Association achieving over 99% compliance for both mandatory and non-mandatory standards in its most recent audit. Other accreditations and certifications include the Correctional Education Association and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).