New show goes behind the bars in women's prison

2014-09-10 16:18

Johannesburg - Women Behind Bars: Life and Death in Indiana premieres tonight on BBC Knowledge (DStv channel 184).

In this chilling documentary, Sir Trevor McDonald ventures into two of America’s most notorious prisons - Indiana Women's Prison and the Rockville Correctional Facility – to take an in-depth look at the lives of the incarcerated women who live there.

In this online exclusive Trevor McDonald meets Sarah Jo Pender who is serving 110 years for murder.

Trevor McDonald was warned about Sarah Jo Pender. No touching, avoid language that she might seek encouragement from. Above all, maintain a heightened sense of professional detachment. For Pender would, the journalist was told, attempt to mess with his mind. She certainly had previous in that area.

Six years into a 110-year prison sentence for killing two housemates, Pender seduced a prison guard into helping her escape. The authorities’ response after she was recaptured a few months later was to hit her with a punitive spell of solitary confinement. Five years on, she’s still there, locked up for 22 hours a day, in case, as McDonald says, she "foments a French revolution among the other prisoners. They see her as too dangerous and too manipulative."

To the neutral eye, Pender looks less temptress, more high-school teacher, but her role in the double murder led her to be dubbed a "female Charles Manson". After providing the gun that her boyfriend used to kill their housemates, she then helped dump their bodies in a refuse bin. The prosecutor at her 2002 trial said: "Lurking within is a dark, evil demon; she has the ability to seduce others into committing atrocious acts."

So did she cast a spell over the veteran news-reader when they met earlier this year?

"When she was described to me everyone said how devastatingly attractive she was. Maybe I am getting a bit old, but I didn’t particularly find that. But she has a very easy, charming personality. She did this thing to me. She knew about the work that I had done. She mentioned my interview with Nelson Mandela and things like that. The way she deployed her knowledge of me was very clever. She did try to get on my good side. She said, ‘You’ve led a fascinating life’ and that sort of stuff."

McDonald will never go behind bars again

"I found her fascinating, but she is the prison authorities’ worst nightmare. Having someone in segregation for that length of time is pretty extraordinary. They are punishing her for the way she messed them up. She has got under their skin, big time.

"I’m a bit of a bleeding-heart liberal and I see few situations like these where I don’t feel sorry for people. You can never condone what they have done, but it doesn’t stop me feeling sorry for them. And it’s the fact they are women and, in the most case, mothers.

"Women are the glue that holds families and communities together. You look around and think, ‘What has happened to all the families of these people, how will their children grow up?’, and you imagine that it doesn’t always have a happy ending."

With this series behind him McDonald says he will never go behind bars again. "I am never, ever, doing another prison series. Once these go out I shall wash my mind of prisons. It’s been an extraordinary experience and not always very pleasant. I used to be shot at in Beirut one day and the next week in the pub I’d be talking about the Test match. These I have found much more difficult to mentally escape from. I have spent my life covering wars, and it’s easy doing Libya from 20 000 feet. I shall keep reading about drone attacks and missiles launched from ships in the Mediterranean. They are lines on a page. These people talking about their crimes, I never want to hear those again."

Catch Women Behind Bars Episode 1 Wednesday 10 September at 21:00 and Episode 2 Wednesday 17 September at 21:00 on BBC Knowledge (DStv channel 184)

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