Women Behind Bars with Trevor McDonald; Supergiant Animals – TV review

The ITV stalwart's style is naturally diffident, but silence proves golden when it comes to drawing out the best from female prisoners

Back in January, Trevor McDonald went inside death row at Indiana state prison and came away with a documentary that seldom rose above standard "America's Hardest Prisons" fare, primarily due to McDonald's willingness to take everything at face value and his reluctance to ask the difficult questions. The broadcaster has now returned to Indiana for Women Behind Bars with Trevor McDonald (ITV), which was as compelling as his previous effort was missable. He still failed to ask some key questions, in particular why the US imprisons more women than any other country, but his lack of pushy inquisitiveness paid dividends elsewhere.

McDonald's interviewing style is naturally diffident, as if he feels awkward about probing too deeply. Among the male population of death row, this had been a major drawback as he was all too easily palmed off with macho bullshit. With the women inmates, it drew responses of extraordinary depth. McDonald would frequently ask a simple, open question and wait for an answer. Time and again, the women would begin by giving a standard, party-line response. To which McDonald would just say nothing. At which point the women would usually start to make greater revelations about themselves.

Occasionally McDonald would give a small sympathetic prompt, but their need to fill the silence was greater than his and so he teased out some of the most telling and moving insights into life in a women's prison. How 28-year-old Paula's father refused to visit her "because it was too hard for him" and how her nine-year-old daughter told her "to keep your head up". How Martha hadn't seen her youngest daughter since 1999. How Desiree's loneliness had made "one thing lead to another" and she had had "two great loves in this prison. I damaged both of them. I took advantage and cheated on them. Of the 740 prisoners in this jail, only 40 are not gay: this has to be the gayest place on Earth." You wouldn't get that kind of honesty from a male prisoner. Many of the interviews that started with smiles and laughs ended in tears.

There's always a question mark in any prison documentary about how much to believe, as many inmates are shrewd operators and know how to play the system. So it's possible McDonald was being played along, but it didn't feel that way. Best of all, he dealt with the issues of manipulation in a leftfield way, through the story of Sarah Jo Pender, a college-educated woman who had been jailed for 110 years for a double murder in 2000 and then placed in segregation in 2008 after engineering her escape. The police and prison authorities' narrative of her life was that she was a very dangerous, manipulative woman who had first forced her boyfriend to kill a couple she didn't want living in her house and then conned a prison guard into having sex with her and getting him to drive out of the prison while she hid under the back seat of his van.

Her version was that she was in a codependent relationship with a drug dealer and that she had been persuaded to buy the gun and dispose of the bodies. No one ever claimed she pulled the trigger as she wasn't even in the house at the time of the killing. She didn't defend herself against the charges of being manipulative about the escape. She didn't really need to. She wanted to get out and had spotted an opportunity. It was hardly the work of a criminal mastermind, but she got the blame for being an evil temptress while the prison officer was painted as a vulnerable, troubled man who wasn't in any way responsible for having a relationship with an inmate. There wasn't enough evidence to determine whose version was true, but there was more than enough to cast doubt on both.

Thursday appears to have been cast as animal night on the BBC. Following straight after the ongoing poochfest of The Wonder of Dogs (BBC2), we had Supergiant Animals (BBC1) in which naturalist Steve Backshall rounded up a croc, elephant, python, elephant seal and sperm whale in just less than an hour. The photography was stunning but I'm not sure I learned anything more about these animals. I might have found out a bit more if Backshall hadn't been quite so certain that the key to really understanding these animals was for him to get as near as possible to them. A few more frames of animals doing animaly things instead of Backshall changing in and out of his diving gear might have helped considerably.

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John Crace

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