THE DAILY LEADER / RHONDA DUNAWAY / Neil White speaks at Ole Towne Church Saturday night.
THE DAILY LEADER / RHONDA DUNAWAY / Neil White speaks at Ole Towne Church Saturday night.

Best-selling author entertains with his transformational story

Published 10:45am Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Friends of the Library kicked off National Library Week with an event in The Ole Towne Church Saturday featuring Mississippi author Neil White, whose best selling memoir, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” details his time in a federal prison that also housed leprosy patient.

White is a family man, journalist and publisher who lives in Oxford, but 20 years ago he was a federal prisoner in a low security facility in Carville, La.

In his memoir, White details his experiences and the spiritual journey he had with a special friend, Ella Pounds, as his guide.

“I had created such a façade,” White said about the mindset that landed him in prison, “I was obsessed with looking like I had it all together, and I was sent to a place where that façade was totally meaningless.”

Speaking to a crowd of about 100 people Saturday night, White was funny and honest about his life and the reality of being an ex-convict.

White said he went in with a lot of anger and a “poor-me” mentality, but he was quickly humbled by Pounds, who was missing limbs and got around on a homemade contraption that she wheeled herself around in.

“I could not feel sorry for myself in the face of that,” he said, “And, Ella was always happy and positive and looking for the better side of things. She taught me a lot about life and living.

“What is terrifying,” he added, “had I met her on the outside I would’ve went right by her, thinking she had nothing at all to offer me. I probably would’ve tried to give money or something.”

Carville was once an 800-patient facility where leprosy patients were forced to live after they were diagnosed. It was the only leprosy hospital in the United States. It wasn’t until the 1950s that leprosy, also called Henson’s Disease, was found to be uncommunicable – not highly contagious. As reparation, the government told the patients they could come back to the hospital and live the rest of their lives there for free.

White said that after he was found guilty of bank fraud and sentenced to a low security facility, he packed like he was going to summer camp.

“When the first person I saw in the window at Carville was missing a few fingers, I knew something was amiss.” That was 20 years ago and the state of Louisiana thought they would save money by putting some of their federal prisoners in the state-funded Carville leprosy hospital that was mostly empty.

He said he never felt physically threatened at the prison/hospital. The prisoners were mostly guys who seemed pretty much like him – decent guys who made some bad choices.

“When you met them and talked to them,” they were all reasonable type men,” he said. “So, I never felt physically threatened. I felt safe and I was able to take some time and examine my life. I can honestly say it was in prison that I learned to be free.”

White said Ella changed him. She taught him that those same personality traits that got him into trouble could be ‘re-purposed’ for a greater good.

“She changed my life profoundly,” he said.

“It took me 20 years to fully see how the experience shaped me,” he said, “and, I just felt it was time to tell everyone about these fascinating people that really made me who I am today.”

National Library Week began Monday and goes through Saturday, April 19. As part of the celebration of the special week, the Friends of the library have also been accepting short essays from the community for this year’s theme, “How My Life Changed @ the Library.”

Those articles will be published in The Daily Leader throughout the week. The first submission is included on page three of today’s edition.