I was one of UKs worst prisoners – my jails were like seven levels of hell

Stephen Gillen was just 14 when he first experienced life behind bars. A product of the care home system, he became a hardened criminal, mixing with the worst of the worst and ending up spending 17 long years in some of Britain's most high-security prisons.

It was there that he was put through what he would call "the seven levels of hell", under constant observation and the threat of violence.

Now free from prison and married with kids, Stephen uses his experiences to try and stop others going down the same road that he did.

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Born in England and raised by an aunt in Ireland, Gillen grew up in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in the 1970s.

The death of his beloved aunt saw Gillen move to London at the age of nine, which is how he entered the care home system.

However, it turned out to be a traumatic move, where Gillen experienced physical abuse in a number of care homes.

He went to prison for the first time aged 14 for taking and driving a vehicle without consent, theft and criminal damage.

In the years that followed, Gillen became known as a firearm-carrying hard-man who cheated death hundreds of times as he mixed in dangerous circles.

In his memoir The Monkey Puzzle Tree where Gillen speaks of his former life, he reveals a number of violent encounters including one, more than 28 years ago, where his head was split open – his response was to return with a gang seeking revenge.

At age 22, in 1993, he was jailed for 17 years for attempted robbery and firearms offences.

Over the years he would be incarcerated in 25 different prisons including Brixton Unit in 1991, Hull Special Unit in 1998, Full Sutton, Long Lartin, and Whitemoor Dispersal Prison five times in the 90s.

Gillen, 51, is now reformed and works as a humanitarian, philanthropist and CEO of his own media company. But his life today is very different to the dark times he went through in prison.

He experienced long periods of segregation where he was "cut off from everything human he knew or identified with" that would leave an indelible mark on his life.

In his book, Gillen detailed a horrific attack he endured at Portland Borstal. "They had jumped me, six heavy bodies that twisted my arms to submission.

"They punched, kicked and dragged me along the segregation floor to a strip cell where the struggles had continued and they burnt my leg as they held it against a roasting water pipe."

Speaking exclusively to the Daily Star about what life was really like in the highest security prisons in Britain, Gillen said: "It’s like the seven levels of hell. It really is a dark place of torture, it’s all focused on containment and security.

"You are looked at differently. You have a blue book which goes everywhere you go. It has your photo in it and the officers sign you over to other officers, so they always know where you are in the prison."

This idea of being objectified can be a way of dehumanising prisoners, who often lose their sense of identity in prison.

Gillen said: "You are signed over like a package. You can only go to certain high-security prisons which also have dogs units, that sort of thing.

"I know they observed us in there, they bug people and all that kind of stuff. I was in these places and also special units which were prisons within prisons.

"They are very desperate places. They are very violent places. For a prisoner to go through that, it is really torture – mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, day in, day out."

Dispersal prisons were specially created to house Category A prisoners who could be moved or dispersed to any of the other secure prisons in the dispersal system at short notice.

Whilst the idea behind the operation of a dispersal prison was practical – that the most serious offenders were not all housed together – Gillen said it fuelled tension among the prisoners.

"It's a mass of the troubled parts of humanity, under the most pressure, being given severe treatment with no future," he said.

"Violence was always under the surface and could easily explode."

What is a Category A prison?

There are four categories of prisons in England and Wales; A, B, C and D.

Category A prisoners are those that are seen to pose the most threat to the public, the police or national security, should they escape. Security conditions in Category A prisons are designed to make escape impossible for these prisoners.

Life in a Category A prison changed Gillen forever. When asked how he feels when he reads reports of his former life and what he went through, he said: "There’s many times I wish I could get away from the past, the stigma.

"But I’ve also realised that I have paid for what I’ve done – we all need to be accountable for our actions. But I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the past.

"What it does, is it gives me the authority and platform to be able to improve as many lives I can because of the life I have led. Unfortunately, in many ways, I am not going to be able to lose that anytime soon."

Gillen, 51, is now a father of three who lives with partner Daphne in Windsor. He is making it his mission to help improve the lives of others and is heavily involved in numerous charity projects including 90-10 Emma Jane Taylor project, which is a charity for women and children survivors of sexual abuse.

To find out more information about Stephen visit his website.

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