No Place Like Home
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP "The Pariah" episode. Today, we're speaking with people who've been cut off from the mainstream. And our next guest, Neil White, he was a businessman living well with his wife and kids. And Neil did fine for himself. Fine until being convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to serve 18 months in a minimum-security prison in Carville, Louisiana. But Neil, well, I'm going to let Neil speak for himself.
NEIL WHITE: The first thing I remember about arriving at Carville - as I waited for the guard to come collect me, I saw a man walking toward the hallway toward me. He wasn't in handcuffs. He was freely moving. He waved to me, and he had no fingers. And that was the first time that I knew something was awry. I looked around, and I saw men sunbathing on a shuffleboard court and a dozen men who looked like they weighed 500 to 700 pounds. A bunch of them were playing dominoes. Then I saw a man in a monk outfit riding a bike through the hallways. And as I scurried around and tried to find my room, I saw a woman in her 80's with no legs in an antique wooden, hand-cranked wheel chair coming toward me. And as she cranked toward me, her dress flying over the front of the wheelchair, she looked over and said there's no place like home.
Well, I didn't know what to think. It wasn't at all what I envisioned a prison would be. After I was strip-searched by the guard, I asked him who the gentleman was I had seen when I was waiting out by the prison gates. And he said it's a Hansen's Disease patient. And I said what's Hansen's Disease? And he said they used to call it leprosy. The next thing I know, when I'm walking through the courtyard, an inmate driving a four wheeler hauling garbage stops in front of me. And he howls like a dog. And then he looks at me and says you know they got lepers here, right? And I said I just heard. And he said and you're a convict aren't you? I said, well, I guess so. He howled like a dog again, and said, well, that makes you a "leper-con." And then he drove off. Well, when I found out that I was living with 130 people who had leprosy, I was terrified. I knew I could survive a year in a minimum-security prison. But my God, if I contracted leprosy, my life would be over. I'd never be able to touch my kids again. I would be disfigured. And so I was absolutely horrified. When I first encountered the leprosy patients, I did see discolored skin and irregular shaped shoes and noses that had been absorbed back into the body, mitten hands where there were no digits on the hands.
Physically seeing them, I was terrified. No one knows how it is passed along. They think inhalation of an affected droplet or skin-to-skin contact. I was given a job in the cafeteria, and I was writing the menu board because they found out I could spell and had good penmanship. And I felt somebody tap me on the back, and a leprosy patient in a wheelchair stood up. And he said use the purple. We can see purple the best. And when he said purple, a drop of spit flew from his mouth and landed on my cheek. Frankly, I thought I was going to die. I was walking, I think, to the cafeteria from the intimate side for work, and I heard a woman in a wheelchair callout. And I stopped and saw this woman in a wooden, antique hand-cranked wheelchair calling out for help. She had started to slide out of her wheelchair. She didn't have any legs. And so I went over to her, and she asked me to help her. And I was reluctant to touch her, but it also looked like she was going to slide out and fall on the floor with just, you know, her upper torso flopping around. And so I reluctantly reached under her armpits and pulled her up and back upright in the wheelchair. And that was the first time I remember touching a patient. The woman's name was Ella Bounds. She asked me to wheel her to her room.
And I say, I'll get in trouble if I do that. And she basically said what are they going to do, put you in jail? And so I found myself alone one morning at about 5:30 in the cafeteria with Ella Bounds. And I asked her if I could fix her some coffee. And she said yeah. She took it with lots of sweets and low, lots and lots of sweets and low. And so I fix her coffee, and we were sitting there alone. And there were no guards around so I asked her to tell me her story. And she said 1912, Denham Springs, Louisiana, and she was in, I think, the fourth grade. A doctor had been to the school house - it was a one-room schoolhouse where she went to school - to administer shots. And he noticed a blotch on her leg. And he pricked it with a needle, and Ella felt nothing. The next week, a gentleman in a truck drove up, and one of her classmates said, oh, Ella, bounty hunter fixin' to carry you away. And a man got out of the truck who had a gun and a coat on. And he came to the door and spoke to the teacher. And the teacher went to Ella's desk and picked her up, escorted her out. And the gentleman sort of showed his gun, and the teacher left her hands - took her hands off of Ella. And the man pointed to the back of the truck, and Ella climbed in. There was a large sign in big red letters that said quarantine. Ella couldn't read it at the time, but she would later understand. And the man drove away, and went to Ella's home to tell her father that he was taking her to the colony.
And she never saw her family again. I found myself standing in front of a woman who had been in prison for 67 years because she had contracted a disease. I was going to be there for less than a year for mishandling over a million dollars. For most of the 20th century, anyone who contracted leprosy was quarantined. And the place they went in the continental United States was a place called Carville, Louisiana. Many times, they were brought there in shackles, sometimes at gunpoint, sometimes by a paid driver they called the bounty hunter. Once they arrived at the facility, they were made to change their name. They were given an inmate number. They were not allowed to vote. They were not allowed to marry. Then jump ahead in the early 1990's, and only 130 of these patients are left. A fiscally responsible bureaucrat said hey, I've got an idea. Instead of wasting taxpayers money on a prison, let's put nonviolent offenders in these empty rooms. And that was how it came to be. I had been in Carville about eight months when I discovered that they were deciding they were going to close the prison side. So the inmates were being released early, transferred to other prisons, sent to other medical centers. And the leprosy patients stayed there.
If anybody comes to you and says we're going to release you from prison a little earlier than you expected, people are jumping up and down. You have to remember that men in prison, they are counting the days. I was talking with Father Reynolds, the Catholic priest who was a Franciscan Monk, and I basically said I'm just appalled that they are still quarantined here and separated from society. And Father Reynolds corrected me and said oh, no, they are free to go. I was stunned. I just assumed that they were not allowed to and that they were in prison as well. And then it hit me that it was even more heartbreaking that they were free to go, but they would rather stay behind those walls in confinement, in this safe haven that they had built for themselves then go out and be free. Ella had been in her hand-cranked wheelchair for - gosh, I don't know - two decades. She had no children. She had no family to speak of, and she just said this is my home now. This is where I'm staying. The reason I think that Ella said there's no place like home repeatedly, over and over to the inmate population was that for the leprosy patients, of course, it was their prison, of course they were taken there in shackles, but at the same time, they built this clandestine community with its own mores and cultures. Their prison had become this home. When you are labeled as leper, you have a bond with one another that very few people can understand.
They were - they called themselves the secret people, and they liked that. A couple weeks before I was to be released, the leprosy patients had a dance. And Ella asked me if I wanted to stick around for the first song. And I looked around, and there were no guards there. And so I said sure, we'll do that. Hadn't heard a live band in a few months. So the band started up, and I pushed Ella around the perimeter of the dance floor in her wheelchair. And I would push her the length of the dance floor and then back again, and spin her around in circles. And she would put her arms in the air, and it looked as if she were flying. And we were having an absolutely fantastic time. It was as close to dancing as we would ever have. After dancing with Ella around the side of the ballroom, Smeltzer (ph), a leprosy patient who didn't like us very much, he pointed to me and to two other inmates, and pointed what was left of his index finger and said you're not invited. No inmates at our party. And that is when Dan, my roommate on the way back walking to the intimate's side said, did we just get kicked out of a leper dance?
I had this sense that it was time for me to leave them to continue on with their dance and their story and their life, and for me to move on. As the prison began to close and the inmates were transferred to other prisons or released early, the leprosy patients were going to be staying in Carville. And I remember very well saying goodbye to Ella. She was standing in the breezeway. I said my goodbyes, and I walked back down the ramp. And I stepped into the hallway and turned toward freedom.
WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Neil White for sharing his story. Check out snapjudgment.org for more of Neil's work and information about the Carville Leprosarium. You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT "The Pariah" episode. And when we return, someone is not sorry, not sorry at all for all the harm they have inflicted. When SNAP JUDGMENT "The Pariah" episode continues, stay tuned.