Visiting time: Charles Bronson invites us into his cell

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After 34 years behind bars, the man labelled Britain's most dangerous inmate claims to be a reformed character. In an exclusive interview, Robert Verkaik comes face to face with the sinister, defiant – and charming – Charles Bronson

'On the day you come, bring ID, a passport or photo, or you won't get in. When they walk you through, go to visit the canteen. GET ME 2 BANANA MILKSHAKES AND SOME CHOC BARS (and what you want)."

Armed with his favourite milkshakes and a selection of confectionery, I was led though the 17 steel doors and metal detectors that lie between the outside world and the man dubbed Britain's most dangerous inmate. In the time it takes to reach the specially designed maximum security unit housing prisoner BT1314, there is ample time to reflect that Charles Bronson has done much to earn his reputation.

During 34 years behind bars, the 55-year-old former bare-knuckle fighter has taken 11 hostages, fought with 20 prison warders and savaged many more fellow inmates, one of whom he says he left covered in blood and "squealing like a pig".

For three months, I have been corresponding with Charles Bronson, or Charlie as he prefers to be called. His letters are polite but slightly obsessive: ("Not a week goes by that they don't release a dangerous rapist or paedophile... I'm just a hostage of my past," he writes in February).

When I suggest that I would like to visit him inside Wakefield, the place he refers to as his "cage", he couldn't be more welcoming. "I'll sort 'security' to send you a Cat A form," his letter says the following month.

So it goes that, as the final door opens into the grey, steel compound, a voice from one of the cells calls out: "Have you come to see Charles Bronson?" it asks. "Well, he's not here, they've just moved him to Parkhurst. All right, Robert. Nice to see you." The guard, laughing at Bronson's joke, opens the final door and ushers me inside. Then he leaves us alone.

Bronson fills the room. Standing behind five green, metal bars, he is wearing his signature blue-tinted John Lennon glasses and sporting a shaven head with a trimmed ZZ Top beard. He appears only about 5ft 9in tall, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in bulging muscle.

I've heard a lot about his strict exercise regime and seen pictures of his bulging physique in the newspapers. In the flesh, his biceps are actually as wide as his thighs. Bronson extends one of his massive arms through the bars. Hesitantly, I take it, knowing that if I am going to be hostage No 12 then this is probably the moment.

Thanks for coming; make yourself at home. Let's see what you've got me. Bronson takes the milkshakes for himself and pours a cup of coffee for his visitor from his own flask. "Not many people can say Charles Bronson was their teaboy," he quips, probably not for the first time. Time spent carefully choosing the chocolate bars has paid dividends. "Double Deckers, I love these. They're my favourite," he says.

We have to stand facing each other because the chairs are too low for visitors to sit on and see the person on the other side of the bars. For the next two hours, we talk about Bronson's time in prison and his prospects of release.

***

Charles Bronson, 55, is a career criminal. He was originally sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 1975 for armed robbery. But during his time inside prison, most of which has been spent in solitary confinement, he decided to fight the system, staging one-man protest sieges and attacking guards.

His last attack was in 2000, when he took a prison teacher hostage. He held the man with a rope, which he used to lead him around Hull jail. As a result of the incident, he received a life sentence. "I've just had some bad news," he tells me, during my recent visit. "They've turned down my appeal again."

Bronson seems genuinely surprised that the Criminal Cases Review Commission has decided it can find no new evidence to recommend a referral to the Court of Appeal. Given his previous behaviour, the court apparently had no option but to dismiss his argument that he is as much a victim of the system as the prisoner he held captive. The conviction and sentence stand.

But for Bronson and his supporters, it is a major blow. They point out that during the siege in 2000 he twice tried to harm himself with a knife. He smashed a bottle over his head and tore a washing machine filled with water from its socket in an attempt to electrocute himself.

In one of his appeals, his lawyers recently wrote: "Mr Bronson has been certified almost as a double Category A prisoner. He is housed in a cage almost like an animal and is not allowed contact with anyone. He is permitted no courses, no interactive visits and only through the grace of God is he allowed telephone contact and visits through a wire mesh."

Bronson picks up on this theme: "Look, I don't want to spend the rest of my life in prison. What have I got to do to prove that I have changed? I haven't started anything violent for eight years now. The guards know it, the governor knows it and the prison authorities know it. I want to get out so I can live the rest of whatever is left of my life in peace."

In fact, as Bronson later admits, there have been three incidents that may have blemished his record: one where he claims he was attacked by prison officers at another prison, but did not retaliate; another when he refused to come in from his exercise yard and was sprayed with CS gas before being bundled into a body belt; and a third, when he spat in the face of a prison governor after his frustrations got the better of him.

For almost all of the past eight years, Bronson has been locked in a segregation cell at Wakefield prison in Yorkshire, prohibited from mixing with other prisoners. His only official contact is with prison officers and in the two visits he is allowed every month. He shares the unit with five other inmates, all considered dangerous in their own way.

One of them is Robert Maudsley, also known as "Hannibal the cannibal". Maudsley, originally held for the murder of a man who had picked him up for sex, was sent to Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane. In 1977, he and another inmate took a third patient hostage and locked themselves in a cell with their captive, before torturing him to death. When guards eventually smashed their way into the cell, the hostage's skull was found cracked open with a spoon wedged in his brain. It is believed that Maudsley ate part of his victim's brain. Between 2pm and 3pm each day, Maudsley is allowed out of his cell to exercise.

Bronson has known him for many years. "Did you see him outside, walking around? He's totally mad. He should be back in Broadmoor." Maudsley, like something out of The Silence of the Lambs, paces around his yard staring at the ground. He has a long, grey beard and stooped figure. "I know about Bob. I've seen him go mad, I know what's happened to him. But we hate each other now."

It turns out that the two cons are sworn enemies after falling out over a Seiko watch Bronson had offered Maudsley, but which Maudsley told a prison officer to throw away.

Bronson, who refers to this feud in his new book Loonyology, says: "I then tell Bob he is an ungrateful bastard, and he says he will stab my eyes out and eat my heart... Maybe the untold solitary years have made him madder."

Bronson spent some time in Broadmoor himself and claims to know about the treatment of the criminally insane. He says the doctors recognised that he wasn't mad and in the end had no choice but to move him back to a high-security prison. "But Bob lives in a complete fantasy world of violence. We now hate each other. I pray to one day bump into him at 300mph and, unlike him, I don't need a blade. Nobody rips my heart out or eats my brain – especially a fucking nutcase like Bob Maudsley."

Despite the animosity between them, there seems a world of difference between Maudsley and Bronson. For one thing, Charles Bronson has never killed anyone. And today he acknowledges the violence of his past. "What I did was terrible. I was violent and I hurt a lot of people. And I am truly sorry for that," he says.

After many years in isolation – at least 25 of his 33 in prison – Bronson has also managed to find new outlets and diversions. He has recently recorded a CD of songs imploring young criminals not waste their lives in the way he has wasted his. Bronson's monthly postbag contains dozens of letters from young offenders up and down the country who write to him for help and advice. "I reply to all those who send a SAE. I tell them to just slow down and think about what they are doing. Don't make the mistakes I did. I have had more than 30 years in here. Do they really want to do the same?"

Bronson, whose cell is about 12ft by 6ft, has also turned his hand to painting. His latest artwork sold for £1,500 on eBay. Writing also distracts him from his problems, and Loonyology (a word he says he has had to invent to explain why he is still in a close supervision centre and not mixing with other prisoners) will be his 10th book.

But his most successful enterprise so far has proved to be an extreme exercise guide, Solitary Fitness, which demonstrates how people can keep in shape in a very confined space. His publisher says it has found a wide audience. Bronson claims he is still able to do 92 press-ups in 30 seconds. Visitors who enquire about his muscular physique are instantly treated to a handstand on the back of a chair.

He also claims to be a poet and a philosopher. "It was the life sentence that changed me, because now I have no release date. It's been a gradual process, but I used to go to bed with a scowl; now I go to bed with a smile."

It's hard not like Bronson when he's trying to be the entertainer. It's a role he plays with gusto. "You know I didn't choose the name Charles Bronson [he was born Michael Peterson]," he tells me. "That was Reggie Kray's fight promoter. He said I needed a Hollywood fighting name. I suggested Jack Palance, who had been a real fighter. But he didn't like that. So I said how about Clint Eastwood. He didn't like that either. Then he suggested Charles Bronson – and that has stuck. But I didn't really like it."

In his fighting career Bronson had just four bouts, all of which he won. The last one was with a Rottweiler. "No one wanted to fight me, so I ended up fighting a dog. I won that one too – but I had to kill the dog."

All his stories are told with a genuine relish. And he even manages to inject some menace when he recalls the names of those who have tried to cross him in the past. "There was one prisoner who was a bully, he used to bully the other prisoners, and I didn't like him at all. I had my own mop and bucket that I looked after, kept them spick and span. But he wouldn't respect that. Every time he borrowed my mop he left them covered in dirt. I told him not to disrespect me but he wouldn't listen."

Bronson recalls finally losing his temper and chasing the man into a cell, where he gave him a savage beating. "He was under the bed squealing like a pig and I was still hitting him when the prison warders finally dragged me out. After I came out of the cell I was absolutely scarlet."

Bronson has served time in 122 different prisons. From the Kray twins (he still has Reggie's tie and pocket watch) to the legends of gangland London today, Bronson seems to have known them all.

In this mood, it is easy to imagine him taking centre stage at the theatre in One Night with Charles Bronson. As he goes through his repartee behind the bars that separate him from his one-man audience, Bronson sounds more and more like Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses rather than "Evil Bronson, Britain's most violent prisoner", which is how he has become known.

Bronson's life story is now to be made into a film starring the British actor Tom Hardy, who featured with Tom Hanks in the hit Second World War series Band of Brothers.

The film is currently being promoted at the Cannes Film Festival, where Danny Hansford, one of the producers, described Bronson as a victim of his own reputation. In the run-up to filming, Hardy visited Bronson in Wakefield on four occasions to help him prepare for the role.

Recalls Bronson of their early meetings: "When Tom first came to see me, I told him, 'You have got be joking if you think you can be me.' He couldn't have been more than 10 stone and was stick-thin. But he told me he was working with a fitness coach. When I last saw him, I couldn't believe it; he looked the business."

Bronson hopes the film will help convince people that he is not the man he once was. The film-makers explore Bronson's early life and relationships to examine what made him a violent criminal.

Hansford says: "I wanted to get to the bottom of him. He had a perfectly good upbringing, a strict father with a strong sense of morals – 'Look after your mum and your family.' But he got into a bad crowd when he was younger. Everyone told me I was insane to get involved, but he was very friendly from the beginning. We get across his humour, his warmth. He is one of the funniest people I've met. Being with him is like being with Billy Connolly for two hours.

I wonder: how the hell can this guy still be in Wakefield prison? His violent days are over. I totally believe it, but they're making an example out of him, like the Krays, because he's so notorious. His reputation is not helping him, but I would have him living in my house. He talks to my mum on the phone. But he's just been given a letter that says he will never be released. I don't know how they can say that when he's never killed. He spends 23 hours a day in a cage and is next door to a cannibal, the worst of the worst.

Bronson now has a legal team working on his case. It is led by Giovanni Di Stefano, the Italy-based legal consultant whose clients have included Jeremy Bamber, Ronnie Biggs and Harold Shipman.

Bronson is due a parole hearing in August, when his lawyers will argue that because he has been in segregation for eight years, he has been unable to demonstrate that he is capable of rehabilitation. His barrister, David Martin Sperry, says: "Everyone has the right to show that they have reformed, but Charles Bronson is being denied this right because of who he is, not what he might do."

Bronson says he means to boycott the hearing, which will take place in the room I'm standing in now. "It's humiliating and extremely prejudicial to have me behind bars at my own parole hearing. How can they recommend me for release if they can't even risk me being in the same room as other people?"

And that, of course, is the heart of the problem that may prove tougher than the man known as Britain's hardest prisoner.

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