What did Charles Bronson go to prison for, and when could he be released? Channel 4 documentary Bronson: Fit to Be Free? looks at his life

His private life is as notorious as his crimes

Criminal Charles Bronson
(Image credit: World History Archive/Alamy/Future)

Interest in the notorious criminal's life is piqued, with a new Channel 4 documentary looking at whether Charles Bronson deserves to be freed.

Charles Bronson has undergone many changes in identity. Born Michael Gordon Peterson in 1952, he changed his name to Charles Bronson in 1987 when he began a bare-knuckle fighting career on his first release from prison. He currently goes by the name Charles Arthur Salvador as a nod to his favourite artist, Salvador Dali. He will however, largely be remembered by the public as Charles Bronson. He has the unfortunate phrases attached to what will be his legacy, such as the "most violent prisoner in Britain" and "Britain's most notorious prisoner". He has also spent time at Britain's most prolific psychiatric hospitals, Rampton, Broadmoor and Ashworth. New Channel 4 documentary Bronson: Fit to Be Free? looks at after having set up a foundation for those less fortunate than himself, and displaying his award winning artwork, whether Bronson deserves to be freed. As the show airs, we take a deeper look at what landed him in prison, and when his release date could be.

Elsewhere on Channel 4, In The Footsteps of Killers looked at what happened to Deborah Wood - the person responsible for her disturbing death has never been found. On Channel 5, The Girl in The Cellar dissects what happened to Natascha Kampusch. The story of her capture and subsequent imprisonment is extremely chilling. On Paramount+, intriguing documentary Con Girl looks at the baffling fraud commit by one young girl spanning several continents. Audiences were left asking where is Samantha Azzopardi now, after watching. 

What did Charles Bronson go to prison for?

Charles Bronson was first sent to prison in 1974 at the age of 22, for armed robbery. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, to be served at Walton Gaol.

After refusing to work in prison, he destroyed a workshop and had a fight with a guard, and had 6 months added to his sentence. After spending several months in solitary confinement for various offences, he attacked fellow prisoner John Henry Gallagher with a glass jug on his release into general population. This resulted in 9 months being added to his sentence, and him being transferred to Armley Gaol. 

Between 1975 and 1977, he was transferred between Armley, Wakefield, Parkhurst, and Walton prisons. He was moved to Parkhurst Prison in 1976, coming across the Kray twins, with whom he became good friends. He was eventually sent to Wandsworth, with governor wanting to have him removed from the prison after a multitude of other altercations. The only prison willing to accept him was the Parkhurst psychiatric wing, and that's where he found himself. After more attacks on the staff and a suicide attempt, Bronson was moved to Broadmoor in 1978.

In 1982, he carried out his first rooftop protest. Escaping to the roof of Broadmoor, he tore down the tiles causing £250,000 worth of damage during a three-day protest - he was eventually talked down by his family. He managed further rooftop protests, and underwent an 18-day-long hunger strike, before being transferred to Ashworth Hospital in June 1984. By 1986, Bronson had been transferred a further 8 times, with another year added to his sentence for violence against others.

He was eventually released from Gartree prison in 1987, and began a bare-knuckle fighting career in the East End of London. His manager wanted him to change his name and despite never having seen any of Charles Bronson films, changed his name to emulate him. On New Year's Day 1988 he robbed a jewellery store and was sentenced to seven years in prison. The following years saw the same pattern of him being permanently transferred between facilities, and carrying out violent acts against staff and fellow prisoners. He was eventually released from this second stretch in 1992. 

Bronson spent only 53 days as a free man before being arrested. He was sentenced to 8 years time, for conspiracy to rob. The same violence and dramatic incidents occurred during this stretch, and Bronson was eventually sentenced to life in prison. He has been moved 120 times during the 43 years he has spent inside, and he remains incarcerated to this day. 

Charles Bronson

(Image credit: World History Archive/Alamy)

When will Charles Bronson be released from prison?

Charles Bronson currently has no confirmed release date from prison, but hopes to end his life sentence at a public parole hearing in March 2023.

According to The Sun, Bronson's solicitor Dean Kingham has written to Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, asking for a free pardon. The letter reportedly read "You have the power under the Prerogative of Mercy to grant Mr Salvador's release without requiring him to go in front of the Parole board... he has not been violent for a significant number of years and his risk is primarily towards prison governors. The evidence in excess of the last five years is clear that his risk of violence has significantly reduced."

"The argument is that if he's been able to demonstrate that he's not violent in very high-risk situations in custody towards staff, governors, etc. then the risk falls away if he's released into the public because historically, while there was a risk to the public, it's never been as severe as that toward prison staff and governors. There is very good psychological research evidence that as someone ages the risk of violence decreases."

When someone approaches 70 the research shows that the risk drops off to zero. Now, he's at that age bracket. The Parole Board regularly releases people that have been convicted of murder. The whole process is based on reduction of risk."

Which prison is Charles Bronson in? 

Charles Bronson is currently incarcerated at HM Prison Woodhill, Buckinghamshire. He frequently speaks of his desire to be released. 

Speaking to Wales Online in 2022, Bronson said "Will I make it out for Christmas next year, who knows? But there's one sure thing – I'll get out of here one day and it won't be in a body bag." Although his violent episodes have continued, albeit less frequently, since 1999 he has written poetry, made artworks, and released his autobiography Loonyology: In My Own Words. His poetry and art have won him 11 Koestler Trust Awards. 

In 2010, some of his artwork was displayed on the London Underground at Angel tube station. The display was organised by Art Below, but The National Victims' Association stepped in to query why his work would be made public. Ultimately, his art was removed from the area. Ronnie Kray purchased several of Bronson's pictures, with some of them being auctioned to raise money for the treatment of a child suffering cerebral palsy. He hopes that by organising a display of his work, he can prove his ability to maintain an income, should he be released from prison. 

Who is Charles Bronson's wife?

Charles Bronson first married Irene Kelsey in 1972, at the age of 20. After their divorce in 1976, he married twice while incarcerated - the first time to Saira Ali in 2001, the second time to Paula Williamson in 2017. He is not currently married.

Paula Williamson had been an actress, appearing in Coronation Street, Hollyoaks, Scott and Bailey and Emmerdale. In 2013, she began writing to Bronson in prison, with the pair eventually marrying in November 2017. In July 2019, Paula Williamson was found dead at her home in Sneyd Green at the age of 38 - her marriage to Bronson was due to be annulled, and she was living with a new partner.

Paula had been on a night out with friends, before being found dead on the sofa the next morning by her boyfriend. A toxicology report found a number of substances in her blood, including several types of medication, along with cocaine and alcohol. The inquest into her death concluded the combined effect of these substances were fatal, with the cause of death recorded as multiple drug toxicity.

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Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.