A philosophical question often pondered over by great minds is, can people change? One man who might make answering that question a little easier is Stephen Gillen. After a difficult start in life he turned to the murky world of organised crime. Then after an armed robbery, Stephen was locked up for 17 years as a high security category A prisoner. Yet, we find him today the polar opposite of the man once known as one of Britain’s most dangerous prisoners, having reshaped himself as a humanitarian, international peace prize nominee, globally successful entrepreneur and as of late author.
Stephen’s new book, The Monkey Puzzle Tree, recounts his life from the early years spent as a child in Belfast, through to his time as a renowned criminal and on to his amazing redemption and commitment to giving back to others. And as if that wasn’t enough, he’s currently in talks about a big budget film all about his incredible life.
We sat down with Stephen to look at the childhood incidents that led to his criminal lifestyle, what it was like spending years in the highest security prison’s in the country and the Hollywood names being talked about to play him in the upcoming biopic based on his book.
The MALESTROM: You were born in England but spent your early years in Belfast. Tell us about growing up in that kind of uneasy environment?
Stephen Gillen: For me, then in the mind of a child, you don’t know that there’s anything wrong, because that’s your reality. You don’t know anything more than what you see in front of you. You don’t know how the world is put together or even what it looks like.
For me it was normality, it was a magical time because the people I grew up with were really, really good people. Now this is important. Science has proved that we get our character, our personality, in the first seven years. I left there when I was nine, so that’s when it started going wrong really.
When people ask me about the epiphany I had to change, what the turning point was on this mad journey? Yes, there were things, but really what I did was, thankfully I had the courage, the opportunity, the strength and the circumstance to find my way back to myself. I didn’t change overnight. This throws people, but it’s the truth.
When I look back at my upbringing I was with decent God-fearing religious people. And they must have poured all that into me as they were the only role models I had.
TM: Seeing all that violence as a child must have been quite affecting? Aside from the strict schooling by the Christian Brothers, events such as seeing that young man shot near you, that massively impacted your life didn’t it?
SG: The truth is, I held that right up until six years ago. I never spoke of it. I absolutely carried that, as I did many things. It was just when I’d overcome all this other stuff and the timing was right. It’s like the layers of an onion as you un-peel it. There’s a certain time for this deep seated stuff to come out.
TM: When you did move back to England aged nine, you went to live with a foster Mum and went through the care system. That transient lifestyle was a pattern that echoed throughout your life. Again, that must have been difficult for a young boy, not to have that stability?
SG: Absolutely. I had such an unstable upbringing in the sense I didn’t know where, what or who. It was very unsettled, I was a very anxious child. And don’t forget everything was alien to me, and I spoke funny. Which was difficult, cause you know what other children can be like. So a lot of trouble came from that.
Take for example the class joker. They can be anxious too, we use our personas for different reasons. What I taught myself to do was to do more. To be the kid who would always do the mad things that no one else would do. That created a pattern very early, I see this.
TM: Another pattern was the prison time. Aged fourteen you see the inside of a detention centre for the first time. What was it like encountering the violence in there and the strict regime that was like joining the army?
SG: When I left Ireland that’s when things started to go wrong. I was cast adrift. Other people in my family have told me that themselves. So it was sink or swim anyway. In those years we still looked to form groups with human beings, we want to be part of something, we want a family. We want to belong. So we go to what we have in front of us. I was like an orphan in many ways and I had to put up with a lot of stuff. It was like a progression all the way through.
Circumstances and my behaviour led me to the detention centre really early. It was a frightening experience for a 14-year-old boy who’s never been to a place like that. But you go there and you go through it – it’s everything it says in the book. In a way it’s like a right of passage when you’ve done it. It doesn’t hold the same lions and tigers anymore.
TM: You didn’t have that natural family around you once you’d left Ireland – but you grew your own family in a sense with the associates that you made in detention centre and prison. Was there a need for that kind of brotherhood with the absence of real family around you?
SG: Human beings have very intrinsic needs. If you want to talk psychology, we need to be loved, we need to be valued, we need to belong and we need to be needed. These are things that are fundamental to all of us, man or woman. So when you look at that and you see the circumstances I had to travel through, It’s not hard to see for an impressionable young person who doesn’t really know that much about the world, how I was easily swayed to belonging in certain groups. We shape ourselves don’t we? This is what I did. When you’re young you can look up to the wrong people – it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for us.
TM: Were you seduced by that lifestyle? Once you had the money, the drugs and all the trappings of that life…
SG: I was. Of course I was. The other part of that is addiction. It rears it’s head early in people with addictive behaviour. I was no different. So, from 14 I was very obsessive and I started to have addiction problems. I’m now clean of absolutely everything. Battling that is like the devil. It’s like an evil spirit and I had that to contend with from an early age, I carried that all the way through. Which is a real igniter in behaviours.
TM: There’s some really visceral scenes in the book. One that stands out is from the bloody night when you went to the Camden Palace and got your head split open before leaving and heading back with others for retribution. That violence was prevalent in your life at that time – did it come easily to you?
SG: As I said earlier, I’d formed this way of being more, doing more. That was a real pattern for me. I was the kid who would have been seen at that point as a loose cannon. A lunatic. I was one of the leaders in a sense, but I would have been looked on as the unstable one.
Even though I did use this terrible violence and it did come easy to me, it was never me. Behind that, I’ve been in fear all my life. People are great at putting on this big act, but the truth behind that is much more practical.
TM: I want to talk about the step up in jail terms. There’s an extensive and gripping account of the armed robbery and subsequent court case in your book – what was it like to be handed that 17-year-sentence and how did you approach that stretch?
SG: Fact really is much stranger than fiction. This is why when you watch a film on the telly based on a true story you say to yourself, this must be a true story. I was involved in organised crime and racketeering, it was based on armed robbery, guns, all that heavy crime stuff. There were people in my family who were experienced in that kind of thing, so we were loosely connected to gangs who would work with each other, independently or together. That’s how it was right.
The character in the book Albert Sixsmith, is, like all the other characters based on a real person. He was the detective inspector of the Flying Squad then, they were all sacked as they were fitting people up. There was a cat and mouse game going on.
The Flying Squad was taking me to court at the start, they took us personally, there were snipers on the roof and a ring of steel. It was big stuff because there were shots fired at the police and there was a lot of background stuff behind it.
When I actually got the sentence, we got 69 years all in all, but there were lots of different sentences that ran concurrent. I got 14 and two and a half consecutive, that was the biggest number, that was the sentence I got. When he gave it to me, it’s weird, I stood in that dock and it was like I always knew I was going to get a big sentence. It was like provenance, I always knew I was going to get it. I remember looking at my associate who was standing up and holding on to the rail and his hand shook a bit.
So, they gave us the sentence and they took us down. I shook his hand and said, “well that’s it then”. But look, let me tell you, that’s the court part of it. When you actually go into a sentence as a Category A and start going through that stuff it’s horrendous. It can take you two or three years for that sentence to hit you.
TM: You’ve been inside the most notorious prisons in Britain. Tell us about your time inside…
SG: It was desperate, it was very violent, it was miserable, it was torturous, mentally, physically, spiritually. It was a psychological war with the authority, the screws. People ask me how I did my sentence. I did it very badly. I didn’t cope well. For me, I tried to behave and tow the line, but when your a Category A, you’re not a normal prisoner. You’re in massively high security conditions and they would come in and torture you mentally and physically. In the end all I had left was my self respect. It was a survival thing. So I thought, you know what, f**k off, you’re not having that. So I made my bed and I lay in it. This went on and on and on.
To appreciate good stuff, you have to have had bad stuff. It’s the duality that the world has – it’s all coded into this matrix. Even in prison when I was going through all that horrendous stuff, I was really lost and desperate as a person. I was screwed. And in the darkest deepest places at certain pivotal times – even at times when I couldn’t see a way over this, there would be a little voice that was so succinct and it would say ‘you have to go through this’. Why the f**k would I have to go through this – I wouldn’t get the answer, just that i would have to go through this.
If I hadn’t have spent all those years in segregation, going through all I did with just a pen and some paper – that’s where I started to learn how to be a writer. I would never have done it.
TM: And you weren’t alone inside. The prisons you were in were filled with notorious prisoners like Charlie Bronson. What was it like being with characters like that?
SG: For me, I’d come from a very criminal fraternity in East London and I was a known criminal. A lot of them in there were older, but I fitted in very, very well in that hierarchy because of who my family was, what i’d done and the kind of character I was. A lot of them were my friends in a sense. Not the naughty people, but the London villains. The underworld or whatever you want to call it. My problems were with the authority a lot more.
TM: So a lot of the prisoners themselves you were friendly with?
SG: Pretty much. I was a face if you want to call it that. If you look at some of those books from the old days. Charlie Bronson’s books I’m in those three times. Living Legends – I’ve got a page in that. The book Killer – I’m in that. So, I was written about by all these people.
TM: I wanted to talk about the mental side of being inside. You were at one point diagnosed with schizophrenia. How did you get to that point? And how are you now?
SG: It’s a no brainer to say that my mind is absolutely genius now. But I’ve had to work internally for that. I’m ten years clean of absolutely everything. It’s about the habits, the vibration I have as a human being, my thought patterns, the people I’m around, the consistency in my life and doing the right thing.
In many ways it was the accumulation of some of the addiction problems I was still having and really I’d been through so much that my mind snapped. I thought people were coming to kill me, enough was enough and I lost it. I was sectioned. I was only in there for some months and they made me very well. It was an episode, but it wouldn’t be repeated once they had cured it.
TM: You’re a completely reformed character now, but did you enjoy being labelled as one of Britain’s most dangerous criminals?
SG: That title came about because I was one of the most disruptive prisoners in the UK. I was put in special units, like the Hull unit and Woodhill. In Hull they try to be nice and you can cook your own food. But I’d been segregated for years before they gave me a chance of that.
What they done with these prisoners in the prison system, the worst of the worst if you want to call them that, or the most disruptive that they couldn’t manage, other than moving us around all the time to share the burden, which was their strategy in the prison service, was they built this 15 million pound ‘Close Supervision Centre’. It’s still there now in Woodhill prison. It’s like a prison within a prison.
So, Charlie Bronson was the sixth person to be selected to go in there from the whole of the prison system. I was the seventh. They had about 25 – 30 prisoners tops in those units. There were four units and they were split up with about seven or eight of us in each one. We were deemed the most dangerous and persistent.
TM: From reading the book it’s clear you never had that stable role model in your life. Is that part of the reason your massively giving back now to become one yourself to others?
SG: With the transformation I’ve had, coming out of prison, my family was in construction, they happened to get some contracts for building, I was treated worse than anyone else, as happens with families, I got no favours, but I went from labourer to supervisor, to running my own contract in the Isle of Wight, to having my very own company all within 18-months. This was the start of me getting into business. It was backbreaking grind, but I’m glad I did it. It gave me healthy, honest work as a human being. There was a time when I was paying my men more than I was earning myself, because I needed them to care.
I realised I wanted to do other things and I needed to learn about marketing. I met a fella that had some history in the film business and I started to write documentaries on the world’s most powerful business empires. I went to university and got a degree at the London School of Business.
I formed other companies and then I started doing a lot of stuff for charity and life coaching. As a coach you can only take people as far as you’ve been yourself. So, I was unique in that sense. I went on to become an internationally award winning public speaker and then I went back into prisons.
Ten years ago when I got clean I said to myself, I want to improve the lives of hundreds, maybe millions of people around the world. At the time I wouldn’t have know how that might even be possible, or the kind of person I’d have to be to do that. But this is what came in. More is revealed as we keep doing the right things. I’m happy to say I’m actually fulfilling that.
TM: Could you ever imagined back in the day you’d be friends with a policeman?
SG: Let me tell you the story. I was invited down to this event in West London about four years ago. It was called ‘Your Vision of the Future’. I went down there, walked into this room and there’s OBE this and MBE that, venture capitalists, chairmen, commanders, all of these people. I went in there and the energy of all these beautiful people was all the same. I was introduced to all these people and for a while I felt unworthy, like imposter syndrome. I’ve got better at it now.
Anyway, this is where I met Kul Mahay. He was the highest senior ranking Asian officer in the country. He got to the rank of deputy chief superintendent, boardroom level, in charge of thousands of police officers. He’s been in the police since he was sixteen and worked his way up through the ranks. He’s said I would have been someone he would have been very interested in back in the day (laughs).
What’s really beautiful about this is that Kul has gone through a lot of racism and other stuff in the police force. With all the discrimination he got to the point, where like me he had an internal journey of discovery. He retired from the police because he wanted to do more. He became this amazing global leadership coach.
TM: Let’s talk about this film of your life. It’s most people’s dream to have a movie made about them. How did it all come about?
SG: When people see films on the telly, they might think, wow, how does this happen? It’s a fairytale. Yes, but behind that the practical stuff is a lot more mundane. It’s taken me four years of work to get it to this point. The film is in pre-production and attracting a real star cast already. The Senior producer, Roseita Royce, President of the International British Film Festival and the rest of the team are very excited about it, as everyone is saying it will take a real Oscar-winning performance, a real heavyweight to be able to play me and both parts of my life, the true darkness and then the transition into real light.
The screenplay has been written by Kieran Suchet who is the son of John of ITN & Classical FM fame and nephew to David Suchet who of course played Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The budget top sheet and everything has been done with a figure of 20 – 30 million to make it.
TM: And any word on who might play yourself?
SG: There have been some names mentioned. They are looking for an A-list actor to play me. Tom Hardy and Christian Bale have been mentioned.
TM: Some big names there. I wanted to ask whether despite turning your life around to such a degree, whether you had any regrets from the past?
SG: Yes. And it’s very simple for me. I wish I had more time so I could do more to make things better. We are who we are, but one of the things that propelled me when the lights finally came on was that I had wasted so much time and I wasn’t prepared to waste another second.
That’s why I’m always pushing everything now. I’m aware of time. I want to do the best I can and help change as many lives as possible and experience as much beauty as I can in my life after so much darkness.
TM: What lessons have you learned through all your experiences?
SG: Life is a journey and it’s about finding our purpose. We are the ones that have to uncode that. It’s an internal job and the further we reach in the further we can reach out. Life doesn’t give us what we want. It gives us what we become. Often the darker the night the brighter the star.
Stephen’s book, already a global hit, is available around the world from all major book suppliers. For signed copies and exclusive videos from the author himself about the book & film please go to & order at: https://stephengillen.com/
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