Neil White was a Louisiana businessman in his early 30s, living comfortably with his wife and two children, when the FBI discovered a check-fraud scheme he was running and got him locked up for 18 months.
When he arrived to start his sentence in May 1993, he brought tennis shoes, racket balls and books, expecting a relaxed minimum-security federal prison. Instead, he found the Carville National Leprosarium, a 400-acre home where patients with Hansen’s disease had been isolated for decades. Convicts and leprosy patients were living under the same roof.
"I began to panic," he says. "I knew I could survive a one-year prison sentence, but I thought that if I contracted a disease that disfigured me, that I would never be able to touch my children again. I thought my life will be over.”
White wrote a memoir about his experience there, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.” In this conversation with guest host Phoebe Judge, he talks about the parallels he found between the inmates and the patients at and what he learned from them. Highlights:
You weren’t allowed to fraternize with the patients, but at some point you started to become physically and mentally closer to them. What changed?
Well, like any kind of prejudice, it's based on ignorance most of the time. I went to the library, and I checked out books, and I learned everything about leprosy that I could, and learned that if they were on their medication I was probably in no danger. More than that, we had an emotional connection. We had both been sent away. We had both been ostracized by the community, albeit no fault of theirs. They had contracted a disease, and I actually committed a crime. But there was a bond there because we had both experienced the same thing. For me, it was especially touching. I was a guy, who mishandled almost a million dollars, and I'm standing in front of a woman with no legs, and because she had contracted a disease, she had been incarcerated for 68 years. It was almost impossible to muster up self pity in the face of that.
You're speaking of one of the patients you became closest to: Ella. Who was she?
Her name was Ella Bounds, and she contracted leprosy when she was 12. She meandered through the colony in a wooden, hand-cranked antique wheel chair. And she chanted things like, "There's no place like home," and, "Load the wagon." She was a huge fan of the Bible. We could not have been any more different. I was a young, white, southern male from a rather affluent upper middle class family. She was an African American girl who was on a tenant farm who'd contracted leprosy, who was put away. Had I seen her on the outside – I’m embarrassed to admit this – I would have passed her by like she had nothing to offer to me. But in fact, when I was put in this prison and became friends with Ella, she had such great insight into my life. The residents there, in spite of all that had happened to them, they had a real advantage over so many of us because they had an acute awareness daily of what really mattered.
The first time that I saw Ella, I was in the hallway, and I was trying to find my room. It was my first day, my first hour there. And I saw her wobbling in a wheel chair, cranking those handles, coming toward me. I knew she wasn't an inmate - it was an all-male prison. I assumed she wasn't a prison guard, and assumed she had leprosy. She had no legs; her dress was hanging over the edge of her wheel chair. I stood to the side, and I held my breath. And as she passed me, she cut her eyes over and smiled and said, "There's no place like home." And she went around the corner, and an inmate came up behind me and said, "That girl's father dropped her off when she was 12 and he never came back." And she was about 80 at the time. And then he asked me if I was still feeling sorry about myself.
This was happening while there was talk about shutting down Carville for leprosy patients. The government was offering $33,000 a year for patients to live wherever they wanted.
Right. Well, you have to remember that when they finally threw open the gates of Carville in 1959 and said, “You’re free to go,” there were nearly 300 of the residents there. A year later, only 17 had chosen to go live in the outside world. What was once their prison had become their safe haven and their sanctuary. No one stared when they had a swollen face or a newly amputated limb. No one asked questions about what happened and why they were disfigured. So Carville became this wonderfully safe, albeit hidden place for people who carry the stigma of this disease.