Knowing a condemned man’s life stops you in your tracks. Charles Salvador was born Michael Gordon Peterson. He grew up but never fit in. After a reasonably calm childhood in England, he joined a gang of robbers as soon as he stepped into the teens and since then has spent 42 years in jail and an astonishing 37 years in solitary confinement — though he never took anybody’s life.
Salvador, now 64 years old, still in prison, and petitioning his life sentence for attacking his art teacher, is often termed as the ‘most violent prisoner’ in modern British prison history. It’s a title given by the English press after Salvador went about attacking dozens of his fellow prisoners, more than 20 guards, taking 11 hostages on different occasions, initiating many one-man protests by climbing on the roof of prisons, hunger strikes, and damaging prison and hospital property worth more than 700 thousand dollars.
First imprisoned for armed robbery, Salvador, while doing bare-knuckle boxing, changed his name temporarily from Michael Gordon Peterson to Charles Bronson — the American action film actor.
In most prisons where he served a sentence, he attacked wardens and visitors. Fearing attacks, he was once told to wear a face mask and put in a cage like Hannibal Lecter. At one time, Her Majesty’s Prison Service ran out of safe prisons in the country to house him due to his highly dangerous behavior.
Charles Salvador regularly took prisoners and visitors as a hostage to protest for his rights. He still holds an unofficial record for carrying out the maximum prison rooftop protests by any inmate in the UK. Many of us don’t participate in a single protest in our lifetime.
As an adult, he has spent only about five months as a free man, and a hellish amount of time in solitary confinement. Today, he can’t take the sun. Sunlight gives him violent headaches and his paranoia about others and being boxed-in never goes away.
Fighting insanity daily due to relentless solitary confinement, Salvador turned to his body for expression. He published a book in 2002, Solitary Fitness, which advised people about individual training with minimum space and resources. He’s known to have bent metal cell doors using only his bare hands. Most of us can’t do 30 press-ups, but he used to do 3,000 a day.
“I’m the king of the press-ups and the sit-ups. I’ve already said I once did 25 press-ups with two men on my back, and I’ve squatted with three men on my shoulders! I’ve been making prison fitness records for as long as I can remember. Show me another man – a man half my age – who can pick up a full-size snooker table. I can. Show me another guy who can rip out 1,727 press-ups in an hour. I can … I once went eight years without using weights, then I went into a gym and bench pressed 300lb ten times. I’m 5ft 11in, I weigh 220lb and I feel as strong as did when I was 21 … There’s something deep inside me that pushes me on. I’m a solitary fitness survivor.” – From Solitary Fitness
Psychiatrists can’t pinpoint what’s wrong with him. The nutcrackers can’t figure out how to crack this nut. Salvador echoed the same sentiment once. In his book, he left a clue. “I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil, just confused.” While some will howl with derision, we can take it or leave it.
When he was transferred to a psychiatric prison once, he had this to say about his experience: “I witnessed them running into walls, using their heads as rams. I’ve seen them fall unconscious doing this. They stabbed themselves with pens, needles, scissors. One even blinded himself in one eye and another tore out his own testicle. There was one just kept trying to eat himself, biting his arms,
There can’t be a more brutal, bitter irony than a near-psychopath empathizing with deeply disturbed people.
In 1999, he also turned to art and writing. Salvador draws and writes short stories and poems. He has published 11 books and won many awards for his drawings and cartoons, which saw numerous displays. In 2016, to raise money for treating a child with cerebral palsy, Salvador auctioned one of his artworks.
In August 2014, he changed his name to Charles Salvador from Charles Bronson, as a tribute to his favorite artist Salvador Dali with whom he also shares a flamboyant mustache. On his website, now non-existent, he claimed he “was renouncing violence…it’s non-violent all the way. It’s a peaceful journey from here on… Coz my heart is at peace and my mind is set on art.”
Charles Salvador might still be a very dangerous man. Such a man also wrote this poem. It’s not perfect, but it’s authentic. It’s an output of a mind not in place and trying to find it.
One summer you suppose
One summer you suppose another summer
will be ransomed—at last—
the stark-rocking maple now willfully green,
the house like a boat like a house,
its old anthem stolen back from obliteration,
incredibly redeemed by a throat—
an ocean instead of ash, or liquor in the
throat that’s singing nameless,
unremembered acts—but this too—misleading.
The orchard’s aqueduct and memory and a
familiar fray of nettle or
the memory of nettle we had seen elsewhere
closer to the coast when we had
been there, had been asleep, a whole day
valor implies the war you also wage it for
doesn’t it, shouldn’t it—
summer, yarrow in your pocket and then,
suddenly, more yarrow:
rescue the color of turmeric under the nails
of Achilles, remember, who to
spite rage, its worked copper, crushed some
flowers in the one soft place left
of his palm—where now no javelin, no reins—
more like a girl’s cheek,
brushing against the shoulders of his men.