Women Behind Bars - Starts Thursday 26 September at 9pm on ITV
More women are in prison in America then anywhere else in the world.
Following the success of his series, Inside Death Row, Sir Trevor McDonald sets out to visit some of the most dangerous women criminals in the United States.
With unique access to The Rockville Correctional Facility and Indiana Women’s Prison, Trevor witnesses a world of seduction and manipulation as inmates prey on each other and those who guard them.
Across the two episodes, Trevor speaks to a mother who killed her three-month-old child, a fugitive who was on the run for over 30 years before she was caught and a woman who is in solitary confinement while having to cope with being five months pregnant.
He also meets a double murderer whose skill at manipulating people enabled her to break out of prison – she then became America’s Most Wanted Woman.
Plus, he speaks to an offender who entered prison as a teenager and has been in jail for 38 years. She will never be released.
Trevor also visits a segregation unit where inmates must be locked down for 23 ours a day, shackled and escorted for showers.
Many look likes angels, but this belies an often volatile and complex offender population.
An offender in the segregation wing at Indiana Women's Prison is handcuffed before being allowed to leave her cell
Following your visit to Death Row, what made you want to visit a women’s prison?
After doing one, I very much thought it would be good to see what the other one was like. It was very, very interesting. I think there are many more complex issues in dealing with women incarcerated than there are with men.
I don’t know quite how to explain it, but I suspect in the end, however their states are different, men find a way of getting on with each other; prisoners versus warders, they find a modus vivendi. They find a way of accommodating the difficulties of their condition to some kind of workable relationship. I think in the case of women there are many, many more issues.
To put it not too prejudicially, ten men in a room could probably get on, ten women in a room, that’s more difficult even in general social circumstances. There are different forces at play and when women are incarcerated it’s entirely different. People come to prison with their various issues and I suspect it’s the burden of the variety of domestic things that they come there with that make it very difficult.
The warders there freely admitted that it was much more difficult to work in a women’s prison than in a men’s prison. In our relationship with them, you had to be careful even how you looked at the women there. People could easily get annoyed about the fact that you looked at them in the wrong way. You don’t have those issues with men.
And the issues surrounding women crystallised around one case, the Sarah Pender case, she managed to escape by manipulating a male guard, and that encapsulated so many of the issues that surround the women’s prison. The male guards have to be so careful. If they’re too kind they stand the chance of getting too friendly, that could be misinterpreted. If they get too friendly, the prisoner could take that as a sign that he could be turned or manipulated. In many respects they painted their job to me as a bit of a nightmare.
Were you shocked when you saw the women who were pregnant or living in the Wee Ones Unit?
Having people pregnant in prison is not exactly the ideal situation. When you think about it in all sorts of terms it’s a significant and one of the most extraordinary phases of your life, and prison is not the place where you want to have to do it.
And to see how people adapt to that, to see what the authorities try to do, yet retaining the fact that these people are prisoners. To think, although I never saw it, that there’s a degree of restraint even while people have just given birth, it blows the mind when you think what the norms of life outside are. That is one of the things that brings home very harshly, very sharply, what life in prison is like. Something as intensely personal and family oriented as giving birth, and you’re being punished in this prison.
Which were the stories that have really stuck with you?
Trevor McDonald interviews double murderer and escapee Sarah Pender
The Sarah Pender story. She managed to get up the noses of the authorities. She did the unthinkable. You’re not supposed to suborn a male officer. You’re not supposed to be able to do that. The entire system is rigged so that you don’t do that, and she manages to do it. Because she managed to do it, the story is built up around her that she is extraordinarily manipulative. That borders with her original crime, two people were shot, her actual role in pulling the trigger was questionable or controversial, but she bought the gun. Why would you go and buy a gun? So what she did encapsulates a lot of what the prison fears most. She is now in this unit where she gets an hour a day out, which I think is very tough. And she’s been there for a record time.
Did you feel any sympathy for any of the people that you met?
I’m a bit of a softy, bleeding heart and there was a woman called Cindy White who was probably, certainly according to her, a victim of abuse, and she set fire to a place to get out, according to her. But other people got hurt and were killed. She’s in there and will never get out. She’s had several appeals and it’s never going to work. And you looked at this lady who’s in her seventies and she looks terribly harmless, and she’s, in a way, extremely charming and very talkative and has fabricated a concept of a life in there. When you talk to her about that fact that she’s lost contact with family, she looks around and says, ‘Well all these people are my family.’ Well that’s nice and glib, but that’s rubbish. It’s not true. But that’s the way she mentally deals with it and that made you feel a little sorry for her. I always feel a degree of sorrow for people who end up in this state. Some people are genuinely bad, but some people have slipped into a thing…and life takes a turn where you have been unlucky and I feel terribly sorry for people in situations like that.
Did you ever feel nervous or scared?
No, there were no intimidating situations. You were just on your guard to be desperately careful about how you were with people and even how you looked at people. You had to have this blank expression. None of the normal civilities apply because it’s a prison, it’s a strange, alien environment. And you had to tailor your behaviour to that. You had to avoid people’s gaze just so they can’t say, ‘Why was he looking at me like that?’ I found that difficult.
Ariel View of Rockville Correctional Facility