Daddy is going to camp. That's what I told my children. A child psychologist suggested it. "Words like prison and jail conjure up dangerous images for children," she explained.
But it wasn't camp. It was prison.
"I'm Neil White," I said, introducing myself to the man in the guardhouse. I smiled. "Here to self-surrender."
The guard looked at his clipboard, then at my leather bag, then at his watch. "You're forty-five minutes early."
"Yes, sir," I said, standing tall, certain my punctuality would demonstrate that I was not your typical prisoner. The guard pointed to a concrete bench next to the guardhouse and told me to wait.
The grounds were orderly and beautiful. Ancient live oaks, their gnarled arms twisting without direction, lined the grove between the prison and the river levee. The compound—called "Carville" by the U.S. marshal who had assigned me to this prison—was a series of classic revival-style two-story buildings. The walls were thick concrete painted off-white, and each building was connected by a two-story enclosed walkway. Large arched windows covered by thick screens lined the walls. There were no bars on the windows. Nothing but screen between prison and freedom.
Through the windows I saw a man limping in the hallway. He stopped at the last arched window, the one closest to the guardhouse, and looked out. He was a small black man wearing a gentleman's hat. Through the screen his face looked almost flat. He stood at the window and nodded as if he had been expecting me, so I waved. He waved back, but something was wrong with his hand. He had no fingers.
I stood and stepped over to the guardhouse. "Is that an inmate?" I asked the guard with the clipboard, motioning toward the man behind the screen.
"Patient," the guard said.
"A sick inmate?"
"You'll find out," he said, and went back to his clipboard.
I looked back for the man with no fingers, but he was no longer at the window. I wondered if he had lost his fingers making license plates or in some kind of prison-industry accident. Or God forbid, in a knife fight. I returned to my bench wondering why he was roaming about instead of locked in a cell.
The prison sat at the end of a narrow peninsula formed by a bend in the Mississippi River, twenty miles south of Baton Rouge. The strip of land was isolated, surrounded by water on three sides. My wife, Linda, and I had driven ninety quiet, tense minutes north from New Orleans. We left the radio off, but neither of us knew what to say. As we passed through the tiny town of Carville, Louisiana, a road sign warned: PAVEMENT ENDS TWO MILES. Just outside the prison gate, I'd stood at the passenger window. Linda looked straight ahead gripping the steering wheel with both hands. I'd leaned in through the window to kiss her good-bye. A cold, short kiss. Then I watched her drive away down River Road until she disappeared around the bend.
As I sat on the bench, waiting for the guard, I resolved again to keep the promises I made to Linda and our children—that I would emerge the same husband, the same father; that I would turn this year into something positive; that I would come out with my talents intact; that I would have a plan for our future.
A guard in a gray uniform drove toward me in a golf cart. He stopped in front of the bench and stepped out of the cart. A tall, muscular black man, he must have stood six feet, four inches. A long silver key chain rattled when he walked.
"I'm Kahn," he said.
I introduced myself and held out my hand. He looked at it and said, "I know who you are."
I put my hand back by my side.
He picked up my British Khaki bag. It was a gift from Linda and a reminder of better times. I had packed shorts and T-shirts, tennis shoes, socks, an alarm clock, five books, a racquetball racket, and assorted toiletries, as if I were actually going to camp. Kahn tossed the bag in the cart and told me to get in.
We drove down a long concrete road that ran along the right side of the prison adjacent to a small golf course, and I wondered if inmates were allowed to play. We passed at least ten identical buildings that looked like dormitories. The two-story enclosed hallways that connected each building formed a wall surrounding the prison. The place was enormous. Enough room for thousands, I guessed.
I had done my research on prisons. Not as an adult, but in high school. I had been captain of my debate team. I understood the pros and cons of capital punishment, mandatory minimum sentencing, drug decriminalization, bail reform, and community-service sentences. I won the state debate championship advocating drug trials on convicts. I argued with great passion that testing new medications on federal prisoners would expedite the FDA's seven-year process to prove drug safety and efficacy, that the financial drain on taxpayers would be greatly reduced, and that these tests would give inmates an opportunity to earn money, pay restitution, and seek redemption, while thousands of innocent lives would be saved. When I was debating the merits of drug testing on prisoners, I never dreamed that I might someday be one.
Kahn stopped the golf cart at the last of the white buildings. He grabbed my bag as if it were his own now, and we entered through a metal door. The walls were newly painted, and the floor was well polished and shone like Kahn's shaved head. I walked behind him down a narrow hallway, and he pulled the chain from his pocket. He unlocked a door marked R & D. My heart skipped, and I felt panic coming on as we stepped inside.
Excerpted from In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White Copyright © 2010 by Neil White. Excerpted by permission.
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