Neil White, a journalist and magazine publisher, wanted the best for those he loved-nice cars, beautiful homes, luxurious clothes. He loaned money to family and friends, gave generously to his church, and invested in his community- but his bank account couldn’t keep up. Soon White began moving money from one account to another to avoid bouncing checks. His world fell apart when the FBI discovered his scheme and a judge sentenced him to serve eighteen months in a federal prison.
But it was no ordinary prison. The beautiful, isolated colony in Carville, Louisiana, was also home to the last people in the continental United States disfigured by leprosy. Hidden away for decades, this small circle of outcasts had forged a tenacious, clandestine community, a fortress to repel the cruelty of the outside world. It is here, in a place rich with history, where the Mississippi River briefly runs north, amid an unlikely mix of leprosy patients, nuns, and criminals, that White’s strange and compelling journey begins. He finds a new best friend in Ella Bounds, an eighty-year-old African American double amputee who had contracted leprosy as a child. She and the other secret people, along with a wacky troop of inmates, help White rediscover the value of simplicity, friendship, and gratitude.
Funny and poignant, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is an uplifting memoir that reminds us all what matters most.
This book came highly recommended to me by a friend’s aunt. I read every page wide eyed and in awe. It was news to me that we had lepers in our country; it has always been something I think of from biblical times or in third world countries. To learn that there was a leprosarium (the only one in the U.S.) in Louisiana for people with leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease) was mind blowing to me. And then to incarcerate convicted felons alongside them…well, talk about a sanctuary of outcasts.
Neil White is convicted in the ’90s of kiting checks in excess of $1 million and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Sent away from his wife and two children, he checks into prison and takes up residence among a wide array of people. After he learns there are patients with leprosy living at the colony, the job given him when he first arrives is writing up the menu boards in their cafeteria. Talk about being taken out of your comfort zone.
It’s easy to feel sorry for White and to be sympathetic. Granted, he was in there because of his pride, greed, selfishness, and lack of regard for the well being of his family, business, employees, and investors. However, I think it’s safe to say that most people would be pretty terrified to live at the leprosarium. There is such a stigma to the disease and then to be surrounded by the patients every day…well I can see where this would unnerve most people.
Having known people who have spent some time in jail, I have a soft spot for inmates. Yes I believe a lot of them deserve to be in jail but at the same time, I feel a compassion for those who are separated from loved ones, disowned by their families, and are making an effort to really better themselves and learn from their mistakes. People are unforgiving and not always willing to offer second chances. White was in a prison with lepers and inmates, two groups of people considered outcasts and looked down upon in our society.
This book will challenge you to open your eyes and feel a compassion for humans you otherwise may not have noticed. Ella Bounds, White’s closest friend while at the colony, is 83 years old upon White’s arrival. It was discovered that she had leprosy when she was just 12 years old. Her dad dropped her off never to return and Ella spent her life apart from the world, bound to the same four walls her entire life.
While his family makes tough decisions “on the outside” without him, White is fortunate enough that his parents would still visit, his children could come for “play days” and he had forgiving loved ones. He learns valuable lessons about himself and the kind of life he wants to live upon receiving his freedom.
When the government decides to close the prison due to the financial burden created in running it, inmates with less than 6 months to serve are considered for early release and others are transferred to another prison. After the closing, the National Hansen’s Disease Museum is opened to honor the lives of many at Carville as well as support the National Hansens Disease Program in educating the public on the history, treatment and rehabilitation of leprosy.
At the end of the book, White updates you on the whereabouts of his new friends that he will likely never see again. While always nice to see “where are they now”, I was hoping for a more profound wrap-up and longer conclusion about how White’s life has been different since he served his time.
Neil White summed it up best with the last line of his acknowledgments. First apologizing to those he hurt, then thanking those who offered their love and support, White closes with:
“To Judge Walter Gex for holding me accountable.”
Bravo, Neil, on recognizing your wrong, serving your sentence, and coming out a better man. May more inmates follow in your footsteps.