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 has 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 newsreader 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.
“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.”
Pender was one of a dozen or so female inmates McDonald met while filming in two women’s prisons in Indiana. America locks up more women than any other country in the world – more than 200,000 at the last count. He was shocked by the brutality of some of their crimes – and the casualness with which they described their violence – but saddened by the impact their incarceration will have had on family life.
“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.
This wasn’t McDonald’s first experience of life behind bars in Indiana. Last year he spent time with death row inmates in the brutal state men’s prison.
He’s reluctant to be drawn into the politics of penal policy – “Americans like the idea of tough punishment. That’s the way the vast number of them like their society to be ordered” – but has reached the view that long sentences don’t work.
“I don’t know how possible it is for people to pick up the pieces after 20 years in prison. It is much more profound than we know. I think there is a point beyond which you almost ensure they can’t do it any more. Having seen these people and hearing them talk about life on the outside it opened a little window for me on how profoundly difficult it must be for anyone to find their way back in society. You can probably do it with a very supportive family network, otherwise I don’t think you have a chance in hell.”
McDonald reveals that he remained in touch with one of the prisoners he met while making the Inside Death Row programmes. Anyone who saw them will remember the inmate in question: Ronald L Sanford, jailed at 15 and serving a 170-year sentence for a double murder he committed aged just 13. The impossibility of Sanford’s situation – he will only become eligible for parole after serving 100 years behind bars – affected McDonald deeply. Sanford’s prison cell was filled with books and the two of them spent much time off-camera discussing the finer points of the English language. “I remember saying to him, ‘You are a privileged prisoner’ and he looked at me and said, ‘That’s an oxymoron’. And he was spot on.
“I do feel sorry for him. I did send him some books, English novels like Dickens. And I know that he was grateful for them. But these contacts are going nowhere and I didn’t want to continue.
I saw them (the prisoners) in the daytime and I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t want to live my life like that. It’s a job, it’s a television programme, but I found it really difficult to move on.
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 on 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.”
Women Behind Bars with Trevor McDonald is tonight at 9:00pm on ITV