Paula Salvador texts when we’re trying to tie down a time for us to speak: “I can do any time to suit you but not when CBB [Celebrity Big Brother] is on! Lol! X.”
We schedule, with the help of emojis, a call that will give her time to pay her local post office a visit before chatting to me and sitting down in front of the box to watch her favourite reality show with a glass of chardonnay and her four beloved cats. So far, so normal for the woman who is married to one of the country’s most notorious convicts.
Incidentally, it was a “visit” to a post office that landed her husband of nearly three months, Charles Bronson in jail for the first time when he left the branch in Little Sutton, Cheshire, with £26.18 in 1974. That armed robbery resulted in seven years behind bars but 44 years later he is still incarcerated and has spent nearly 40 years in solitary confinement, currently at the segregation unit at HMP Frankland in Durham. (“I’ve ate more porridge than the three bears,” he once said.)
Bronson may have been a petty criminal on the outside but his wild actions inside prison earned him the unfortunate title of “Britain’s most violent prisoner”. He has attacked at least 20 officers, seized hostages on multiple occasions, including one particularly intense 44-hour siege and another during which he threatened to eat one of his captives. Bronson holds the unofficial record for the most rooftop protests by a UK inmate.
Born Michael Gordon Peterson in Luton in 1952, he changed his named to Charles Bronson during a brief spell of freedom in which he took part in bare-knuckle fights – he recently changed his surname to Salvador in tribute to the Spanish painter, Dali – Bronson is a keen doodler.
Bronson married Paula Williamson in the chapel at HMP Wakefield last year (Rex)
But that “troubled, disturbed, aggressive” youth is different, says Paula, to the “born-again” 65-year-old who spends 22 hours a day in “the cage” today – and not the man she married.
This is Paula’s first marriage, but Bronson’s third. He married his teenage sweetheart, Irene Dunroe, in 1971. She filed for divorced six years later while he was serving his first sentence.
Paula and Irene have been in touch and recently went for a drink together. “We’re like carbon copies,” Paula says. “We were like sisters. We were laughing at the same things, we even look similar. It was really, really bizarre. I said to her, ‘Oh god, he’s got a certain type and we were laughing at that’. She had the most lovely things to say about him. She said they were just too young when they got together and he did some stupid things and got into the wrong crowd. But obviously the man I’m with is different.”
Bronson then married Bangladesh-born single mother Saira Rehman at HMP Woodhill in 2001. She said she fell for him when she saw his photograph in a newspaper in the late Nineties. Saira’s daughter began calling Bronson “daddy” and reportedly sat on his lap and played with his beard during visits at the prison. That marriage lasted four years.
But Paula, whose ex, Michael Coleman, allegedly received letters from Bronson that included “veiled threats” shortly after the relationship started, believes things are different this time around. She knows, she says, that she and her husband will be together and holding hands outside of prison boundaries at some point.
“I know that Charlie will get out,” she explains. “I’ve not married a murderer, I’ve married a man that has been taken and hyped by the media to be a larger-than-life character when the reality is very different.”
The hope that he will one day be freed is important to her.
“I find it very bizarre when I hear about women with husbands who won’t ever get out,” she says. “I don’t understand that. Especially when they’re in America and on death row. You’re never, ever going to be together, you don’t even live in the same bloody country. It’s very sad. No matter how strong a connection I felt with someone I couldn’t go that far.”
Paula admits that being with Bronson isn’t always easy. She has found herself up against some pretty harsh critics, with many suggesting it is all a publicity stunt. But she makes no apologies for catapulting herself onto the media stage since she went public about their relationship, despite the backlash.
She says she faces bullying, hate messages, has had her face humiliatingly superimposed onto porn images and has seen Facebook groups dedicated to the members’ hate for her. She says though that it’s her duty as Bronson’s wife to speak up and fight his corner while he is unable to.
“All I’ve done is fall in love with someone and campaigned for them. Of course I have because my husband is being held for 22 hours a day in solitary confinement and I want the whole country if not the world to understand what is going on. I’d be a pretty shit partner if I didn’t.”
That is why she and friends of Bronson are continuing to campaign – they delivered a 20,000-name petition to Downing Street in December – for him to be able to “take the first step towards freedom” after he was refused parole in November last year. He will not be eligible for further review within two years and has not been approved for legal aid.
“He’s locked up with murderers,” Paula, an actor who was once rumoured to have written to Moors murderer Ian Brady, says. “He’s got child murderer Ian Huntley in there, serial killer Levi Bellfield and the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. Yet Charlie, whose crimes on the outside were relatively minor, not wanting to diminish the weight of them, but relatively minor by comparison, is being kept in there [in segregation].”
Paula is, however, “positive” about her husband’s recent transfer to Frankland from HMP Wakefield. Although the County Durham prison is further for her to travel for visits from her home in Staffordshire, she hopes being there will work in Bronson’s favour and she is confident in its track record for helping Category A prisoners downgrade to Category B. “They have something there called the Pipe [Psychologically Informed Planned Environment] programme and I’m optimistic that Charlie will eventually benefit from it,” she says.
Paul, however, is under no illusion. She doesn’t expect Bronson, who is 28 years her senior, to be freed from “monster mansion” anytime soon. She’s not even expecting him to be put in the general prison population just yet.
Bronson’s new wife says prison has ‘tested’ him of late but he’s not retaliated as he once might have (Rex)
Instead, she is hoping for a different set up where he could associate with other inmates for a few hours a day to give him a chance “to prove he can behave” and has progressed. But she believes his name and notoriety go before him, and that he is “a hostage of his past”.
“I think solitary confinement is a really primitive way of doing things and there are far more effective methods,” says Paula. “If prisons are about rehabilitation, how on earth can anyone be rehabilitated if they’re banged up for 22 hours a day with only their own thoughts?
“All we are asking for is progression. We know he’s not going to be released just yet. We all agree that it wouldn’t be right on anyone to release a man from being locked up 22 hours a day to showing him the door. That would be ludicrous. I think he’d find it hard to cope even given the help and support he’s got. But it’s about making a transition through the system.”
Paula genuinely believes Bronson is a reformed character and that he has demonstrated his determination to prove the man he once was is “dead and buried” thanks to art, fitness and finding love. She says he has been tested on a number of occasions recently, including being denied access to his wedding photos and put on live monitored calls, but has not retaliated in the way he previously would have done. Instead he is using his own experience to offer guidance to other prisoners by becoming something of an “agony uncle”.
Salvador has taught Bronson about the ‘law of attraction’ and the power of positivity (George Bamby)
“Something always goes on that could provoke Charlie but he doesn’t react,” she says. “Charles Bronson would have done god knows what 10 years ago but the Charles Salvador of today is calm. He’s 65, don’t forget and he’s come a long way. Now he gets loads of letters by the sackful from prisoners and young offenders asking how he’s coped and he writes positive advice back to all of them.
“He always says he doesn’t regret things but he’s wasted a lot of his life, missed out on so much and if he could have it all over again he’d do it in a very different way. He encourages the prisoners to stay out of trouble and come out a bloody better person than when they went in.”
And when Bronson finally gets out himself? The newlyweds have plenty of plans for then – they want a little farm with rescue animals, he’s agreed to share the bed with the cats and they’ve joked about him croaking it during the consummation of the marriage.
Looking to the future was not always an option, though.
“He often says he never dared to think about getting out but now he says he’s daring to see a future,” says Paula. “I’ve taught him about the law of attraction and the power of positivity and told him he’s got to believe it. Ever since I started putting these notions into his head his demeanour has completely changed. Now he just wants to do what he’s got to do. Do all the courses, jump through whatever hoops and get out.”
The unlikely couple might yet get to enjoy nights snuggled up on the sofa in front of Celebrity Big Brother.