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I was caged with Charles Bronson & know why he lashes out – but an extraordinary day showed a surprising side to him | The Sun
HE'S been dubbed Britain's most dangerous lag, but Charles Bronson has a softer side too, claims one of his former jail pals.
Former London gangster Stephen Gillen, 51, bonded with the infamous prisoner, known for his extreme violence, during a series of spells in the late Nineties and early 2000s.
In an exclusive chat, Gillen, who spent almost 12 years inside for crimes including firearms offences, argues Bronson should be freed ahead of a parole hearing next week.
He reveals one incident that showed his friend's empathetic side, and claims they were driven to madness by horrendous prison conditions.
Gillen said: "He was desperate. We all were. You can't keep hitting a dog with a stick and be shocked when it eventually bites back.
"I understand that people like Charlie, and me back then, need to be contained, but conditions inside weren't always engineered to encourage people's best behaviour."
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Bronson, 68, was caged initially in 1974 for armed robbery and has since had his sentence extended over numerous violent attacks and protests while inside.
He rose to prominence after stories emerged about his attempts to kill offenders behind bars and bust-ups with prison staff.
The notorious lag, who opened up this week in a Channel 4 documentary, has since claimed much of his behaviour was caused by "frustration" and admitted some of his victims didn't deserve to be attacked.
Bronson is making a bid to gain freedom in a public parole hearing on March 6, where he hopes to convince people he is a "man of peace".
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During Gillen's time in jail, he was moved 25 times and would spend months at a time in the same segregation units as Bronson.
He argues that the famous con's grisly reputation preceeded him and made it harder to break his cycle of violence.
"Charlie was branded in a certain way as a violent prisoner thanks to his protests and other behaviour early on," he said.
"As a result, he was never given a chance to become anything else. This myth around him was created and he ended up living up to it."
Gillen, who now runs his own company Roar Media Creative, argues that if he was able to turn his life around after being considered almost as dangerous as Bronson, then there is no reason his pal can't do the same.
Bronson shocked the nation in 1999 when he held prison teacher Phil Danielson hostage for 43 hours in HMP Hull.
He told the terrified man to “take your last breath” after tying a skipping rope around the teacher's neck and tugging him about at knifepoint..
When The Special Unit CSU at Woodhill opened, Bronson was the seventh person selected to be incarcerated there and Gillen was the eighth.
The former lag says he fears that prison conditions led to Bronson acting out in a very violent manner.
He said: "I stayed there for two years. I was the eighth person selected for it. That system is so bad. You're in a fishbowl.
"If you're in the bottom tier, below standard prison accommodation, you sleep on a concrete pillar on the floor at an angle.
"I used to only sleep for an hour at a time before I felt numb. You're banged up there 23 hours a day. Guards only come in dressed in full riot gear.
"I was moved up and down through their tiers, it's hard for anyone to cope."
Gillen doesn't excuse his pal's crimes and branded the attack on the teacher as "horrific" and "life-changing," but he thinks Bronson has served enough time now to atone.
"Charlie's punishment has been over the top for what he has done. There is enough punishment and retribution there for his crimes," he said.
However, victim Phil claimed that Bronson's apology wasn't genuine in Channel 4's documentary Bronson: Fit to be Free?
The traumatised man said: "I think he needs to show remorse and I think it needs to be documented remorse not just clever talk to get himself back in the papers."
In the 1990s Bronson and Gillen were serving time in the Full Sutton segregation unit when Bronson showed a surprising turn of empathy.
A recent prisoner on the block at the time was M4 rapist John Steed, who attacked three women and murdered a fourth after sexually assaulting her.
The beast hanged himself in a cell just a few down from Bronson – who was known to have a deep hatred for sex offenders and had previously attempted to strange John White for his rape and killing of a child.
"Not long after Steed's suicide, an old man with a stick and a young woman were brought onto the unit to see the cell. They must have been family," Gillen recalled.
"Other guys on the block were shouting obscenities about Steed, calling him a nonce, a Nazi and saying it was great that he was dead as the people walked past. It was all very nasty.
"I mentioned to Charlie that I thought they were Steed's family and he replied 'God, I hope they're not his family because they shouldn't be listening to this.'
"For me, that showed how much empathy and kindness Charlie had. Everyone knew he hated sex offenders but he could still feel for their families."
Throughout the duration of the visit, Bronson kept quiet and didn't voice his opinion on Steed when the potential family members were there – despite later saying he was "made up" by the sex offender's death.
Gillen is now awaiting the outcome of next week's parole hearing and says he's even helping to line up a caravan for Bronson to stay in if he is released.
"I know that without a shadow of a doubt that if Charlie gets his chance at freedom, he won't want to mess it up," Gillen says.
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"He's in a very different place now to what he was the last time. He's found a release through his art, he has a support system and that will make a huge difference.
"I'll be there to help him. I've given money to help buy a caravan for him and other bits and pieces to help him adjust. I know he has other and close family supporting the same"
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