For a while there, things for Neil White were going good. More than good, they were going great, and then they weren't so great.
To start, start in 1985 with the alternative newspaper White founded when he was fresh out of Ole Miss and only 24 years old. The paper was Oxford, Mississippi's Oxford Times, and White was taking on the town's daily paper, the Oxford Eagle. He and his staff made it their mission to fight for the disadvantaged, to serve as a watchdog for the community, to root out corruption and conflicts of interest. For his part, White made it a point to meet writers he admired — writers such as Willie Morris, Alex Haley, William Styron, and George Plimpton. Two years later, though, the paper folded, with White (after some "creative" banking on the side) owing investors and creditors a whopping $100,000. The failure, however, didn't end his publishing career. In fact, the Eagle didn't even report it. The word on White? There was no public word on White.
So on to the better times and White's new publishing ventures in Gulfport, his hometown — ventures that would come to include Coast Magazine, Coast Business Journal, Louisiana Life, and New Orleans magazine. And along with the string of city and regional magazines under his ownership, there was the high life to go with it: a charming wife from a good Mississippi family, two cute kids, Brooks Brothers suits, shoes for $300, dinners for $500, and a couch and chairs from a fancy French Quarter shop for $7,000.
Then, on April 9, 1992, White got a call from his loan officer, Albert Dane. Dane, a friend and supporter, asked White to come down to the bank. The FDIC had performed an audit. And Dane had this to say: "It's come to our attention that you've been kiting checks."
White didn't deny it. He couldn't deny it. It was true, along with a number of other charges that amounted to fraud. This time, though, there was a price for White to pay: 18 months in a federal prison — but no ordinary prison. White was sentenced to the minimum-security facility outside Baton Rouge, near the tiny town of Carville. When he arrived in May 1993, it housed more than 400 inmates. Some were white-collar like White. There was Frank Ragano, Jimmy Hoffa's lawyer. There was White's cellmate, Victor "Doc" Dombrowsky, a man with degrees in medicine and pharmacy who'd invented a "heat" pill as a method for weight loss. (The secret ingredient: weed killer.) Other inmates were minor street thugs —among them, a wisecracking loudmouth named Link.
To pass the time, prisoners exercised on a volleyball court, a shuffleboard court, a basketball court, a track, or a horseshoe pit. Inside were six television rooms (with basic cable and HBO), an arts and crafts room, a pool table, and a Ping-Pong table. In good weather, prisoners sun-bathed. At night, inmates even crawled out of the unbarred windows — with friends from outside the facility serving as substitutes during the casual bunk checks by guards who couldn't care less.
But the prison was also home to 130 permanent residents. Some scooted around in wheelchairs; others supported themselves on canes. Some were missing fingers; others were missing entire limbs. And many of them had been there for decades. They were all suffering from Hansen's disease, better known as leprosy, and as White reports in his memoir In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (Morrow), they were the last people in the continental United States confined because of the disease.
White, a man who'd prided himself on appearances (especially good appearances), at first could barely bring himself to breathe in the air that surrounded him. So he hoarded scent strips torn from magazines, but he treated the lepers (a word despised by those afflicted with the disease) with courtesy. He took the ribbing from other inmates in stride. And he went "undercover": He convinced himself he was in prison on assignment. So he took notes on this brief "experiment" mixing prisoners and leprosy sufferers. He would write an expose. He'd maybe even win awards. His reputation as a journalist would be restored.
But White was wrong. More accurately, he was in denial. Then, a sermon delivered by Father Reynolds inside the facility's Catholic chapel opened his eyes to some facts — chief among them the fact that he was about to lose his two children. White's wife, Linda, was filing for divorce. That sermon's subject was pride.
White recalled the million dollars he'd lost his bankers, the 30 employees he'd put out of a job, and the single mother who'd been evicted from her house after losing the money she'd invested in White's company. He also recalled with shame what his actions had meant to his parents. True, he acknowledged his guilt, but he'd never, as White writes, "taken an objective look at the person I had become." Now he would: "Surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own."
Ella Bounds, both legs amputated and confined to a wheelchair, was one such woman. She'd been at Carville since 1926, when, at the age of 12, her leprosy was diagnosed. White discovered, in Ella, a source of wisdom, kindness, strength — and liberation. Her example freed White from the "prison" of the expectations he'd placed on himself and freed him from his drive to succeed at all costs. And on April 25, 1994, he was free: free to return to life outside prison, free to reenter the publishing business (but on a smaller scale), free to return to Oxford (where he has since remarried), and free to finally tell this story.
"People kept saying, 'I can't believe you've waited 15 years to write this book,'" White said by phone from his office in Oxford. "So I knew there'd be interest, but I didn't want to sensationalize it. I needed time to figure out what it all meant, why it was important. And I didn't want literary, flowery language to interfere. I wanted to keep it accessible, let the story be impactful, not the writing. I couldn't have done it any other way. My name is on the book, but it's not my book. I consider it our book."
"Our": as in Ella, Link, "Doc," and Father Reynolds; White's former wife and two children; White's supportive parents; and last, not least, a new Neil White.
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: "It's been a long time in the works," in the words of its author. "A healing but difficult birth."