Monday, 14 October 2013

Hardened Female Criminals – what makes them do it?

Sarah Pender serving 110 years in prison - ITV, Women Behind Bars
As a Psychotherapist, I’m fascinated by the differences between law-abiding citizens and those who cross the line into serious crime. In a recent two-part ITV documentary, Women Behind Bars, Trevor MacDonald visited two correction facilities in Indiana to speak to women inmates and find out about their crimes, their motivation and their hopes for the future. Here's what I discovered below the surface.

Sarah Pender was given a sentence of 110 years, having been accused of killing two people in the house where she lived and disposing of their bodies in a skip. She claims she didn't pull the trigger and there are massive support campaigns to clear her name and get the charges changed. The prison authorities, however, have her down as an expert manipulator (she escaped in 2008, having persuaded a male prison officer to get her out). In conversation with Trevor, she comes across as attractive, intelligent, insightful, calm and most surprisingly of all – totally normal. She spends over 20 hours a day in an isolation unit at Indiana Women’s Prison, leaving her cell for only one hour, in hand-cuffs, to use the shower. Yet there’s nothing sinister or crazy in her eyes, no nervous tics, no body language that gives any indication that she is someone you need to be wary about.

Sarah Pender - ITV, Women Behind Bars
Sarah claims her crime was down to ‘emotional attachment’. She was in love with her drug-dealer boyfriend and accepted his errant behaviour, because, she says, ‘I didn’t want to lose him.’

‘Like many women,’ she went on, ‘I thought I could change him.’ What her actions were down to, however, was ultimately fear rather than love – a symptom of a co-dependent relationship. ‘The thought of being left alone frightened me more than whatever consequences would come from purchasing a firearm.’ 

Co-dependents have less well-defined boundaries than others and can be talked into things. They tend to overreact, live in constant fear of rejection, are obsessive, focus on being needed and are people-pleasers. Low self-esteem plays a huge part. Co-dependency is rife amongst prisoners; it's about trying to fill a void inside, through addiction to a person, drugs, alcohol, sex, money, food or fame. It can take over one's life.

Many crimes, it would appear, are committed with co-dependency in the picture. Prison officers say they are constantly surprised, when a new woman is brought in, by the mismatch between their sweet, innocent demeanour and the crime that goes with it. When she explained how she shot a man in the face, one inmate smiled, as if she’d been asked if she still believed in Father Christmas. But it wasn’t an insane smile – it was as though she, too, could hardly believe what she’d done.   

Another women, Addie, who was about to be released didn’t look rough, mean or calculating in the least. She giggled when she talked of her armed robberies  – ‘beat em up, knock em down...’ She was pretty, cute and had two children. She put her actions down to the people she mixed with (criminal groups), her history (her parents and their parents had all been in prison), and her anger problem. Her main worry about being released was going back into the same surroundings. She didn't sound convinced that she would be able to make different choices to break the cycle, once she was outside. If she turns her back on crime, she's turning her back on everyone close to her and that's not going to be easy. Unfortunately, when talking about her new attitude, her language was rife with co-dependency. ‘I want to change for them,’ she said, speaking about her children aged seven and nine. Being needed is often all these women seem to have left.

What chance do these women have, once they're back in society? Will they have enough self-awareness and self-will not to slip back into old ways? What chance has Abbie got if crime is the norm in her everyday life beyond the prison walls? What is going to stop Sarah from falling for another charismatic man with a criminal record?

I’ll be watching the second episode shortly. Click here to Tweet this post 

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