In the mid-1990s Neil White defrauded creditors out of their money and was sentenced to spend time in a federal minimum-security prison. He recounts his time spent in that prison in his memoir, In The Sanctuary of Outcasts, which gives the reader a glimpse into two societies shut off from the mainstream: prisoners and leprosy patients. The story fascinates from the start, when White tells of his wife dropping him off at the prison gatehouse. He is early, and he has to wait to be checked in. Everything about his check-in procedure is designed to let him know the rules from outside no longer apply, and he is not in charge of his daily activities. White is strip searched, assigned a room, and given a job. He has no door on his room, no privacy, and he learns not to offer to shake hands with the guards. He also soon finds out that the prisoners are housed alongside Hansen’s Disease patients, more commonly known at lepers, and he must work serving them in the cafeteria.
Through White’s account we learn the history of the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, a facility that started in the late 1800s as a place to isolate those with the disease. While Hansen’s Disease can now be treated in a physician’s office and patients are no longer isolated, those living at Carville predated treatment, and many remained at the facility even after it was no longer necessary for them to stay. Most had been there for half a century or more, and they had no other place to go.
At first White reacts as much of society has always reacted to these patients: he doesn’t want to breathe the air they breathe, touch them, or eat food they have been around. He is afraid he will catch leprosy, turning his short prison sentence into one with consequences for the rest of his life. Gradually, he learns he has nothing to fear. He begins to seek their company whenever possible, and the lessons he learns from them help him find redemption for his own crimes and misdeeds.
Through White’s eyes we also see the other prisoners serving time with him, a hodge podge of criminals who include doctors, lawyers and accountants as well as drug dealers and robbers. This bizarre co-existing of prisoners and patients came about as the federal government tried to decide what to do with the facility at Carville.
Only White can answer whether he truly found redemption and learned to change his self-destructing habits for good. But his story of others who have learned to find grace and lead happy, productive lives despite being cut off from families and ostracized from the rest of society is inspiring as well as informative.
I had the chance to glimpse the inside of Carville myself when I was in college in 1980 and interviewed a patient who was editor of the newspaper the colony produced. I’ll never forget the feeling I had of a place that had been both sanctuary and prison for the patients. White captures the place well, and in writing about it, sheds a bit more light on this little known piece of American history that should not be forgotten. I highly recommend it.