We look at the shocking case of Mark DeFriest, known as the Houdini of Florida prisons because he has tried to escape 13 times — seven of them successfully. In 1979, DeFriest’s father died and left him a set of tools. He picked them up before they were probated. The teenager was arrested for stealing and sentenced to four years in prison. Thirty-four years later he is still there, having spent 27 of those years in solitary. He spent much of it in the notorious “X wing” of Florida State Prison, where he went for years without seeing the sun. We are joined by Gabriel London, director of the new film about the case, “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest.”
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the shocking case of Mark DeFriest. In 1979, his father died and left him a set of tools. Not realizing how wills worked, Mark picked his tools up before they were probated. He was arrested for stealing. At the age of 19, Mark was sentenced to four years in prison in Florida. It’s now 34 years later, and Mark is still locked up. He’s spent 27 of those years in solitary confinement, even though he has never committed a violent act.
His story is told in a shocking new film called The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest. The film looks at how Mark ended up in jail and how he became known as the Houdini of Florida prisons because he’s tried to escape 13 times—seven of them successfully. About a month into his sentence, he tried his first escape. This is a clip of Mark DeFriest describing that attempt.
MARK DEFRIEST: It was a Tuesday, I remember that. Tuesday Bible study. You’re supposed to be escorted out of the compound at night. Eight of us broke camp and hauled ass for the fence. Those other guys, half of them got hung up on the fence in the razor wire [bleep]. They’re screaming, “DeFriest! Wait up for me!” I’m like, “What the [bleep] is wrong with you people, man?” There’s an art to everything. My dad taught me how to deal with stuff like that.
GABRIEL LONDON: So he taught you how to cheat razor wire?
MARK DEFRIEST: Well, not that particular brand of it. But, I mean, infiltration is part of [bleep] military training, man—sabotage and counterintelligence.
GABRIEL LONDON: That’s all stuff you learned?
MARK DEFRIEST: Yeah. It’s part of war.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a excerpt from The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest. In another escape attempt, Mark used a zip gun he made in woodshop class. He said he never planned to hurt anyone, but he was charged with attempted murder.
During his trial, five out of six court-appointed psychiatrists testified Mark DeFriest was highly intelligent, but also mentally ill and incompetent to be sentenced. But one doctor insisted he was faking. This cleared the way for Mark to plead guilty to a life sentence. He spent much of it in the notorious “X wing” of Florida State Prison, where he went for years without seeing the sun.
For more, we’re joined now by the film’s director, Gabriel London. He is just back from a hearing before the Florida Commission on Offender Review on Wednesday, yesterday, where he testified on behalf of Mark DeFriest. The commissioners have all seen the film, and for the first time, they decided to meet again in just a couple of weeks to consider an early parole date for Mark DeFriest. This is a major change for the commission, which has previously delayed his parole for as long as 20 years.
Gabriel London, welcome to Democracy Now!
GABRIEL LONDON: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: This case is so shocking. So what happened yesterday in court?
GABRIEL LONDON: I would say, in—
AMY GOODMAN: Is it a court?
GABRIEL LONDON: No, it’s a public body known as the Commission on Offender Review.
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
GABRIEL LONDON: It’s in Florida. It’s in Tallahassee. It was previously known as the Florida Parole Commission. Parole was abolished in 1984 in Florida, and across much of the country, so it’s interesting there are still a number of cases that are essentially grandfathered in. Mark is one of those. And he comes up for parole consideration every two years approximately. They can decide anywhere between seven and one year they can bring a case back. And they brought him back. They did a subsequent interview. And they basically said that rather than making a vote yesterday, they would like to bring the full committee back, because only with the full committee can they make a much bigger reduction in his parole.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us Mark’s story.
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah. Mark went to prison in 1980. He basically was 20 years old and had a dispute with his stepmother and the authorities over the will of his father. He didn’t really understand the concept of probate. And this gets at a larger issue with Mark, the whole question of whether he understood the legal process and a lot of really the laws of people. Mark was gifted as a child, incredibly gifted—a savant, if you will—and really had these skills, but no social understanding. And they tried for years, in a sense, to figure out what to do with him. And ultimately, it was the prison system that stepped in and just held him tight for the last 34 years.
AMY GOODMAN: So he took his dad’s tools that his dad had left him. In fact, it was his bond with his father—
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —because his father taught him to use these tools. How did he become the Houdini of the prison system?
GABRIEL LONDON: Well, it also goes back to his father. In a sense, Mark and his father had this deep connection that was really a mechanical connection. His dad had a history of having been in World War II, was an OSS person, really believed that the Communists were coming, and he sort of prepared his child, his only son, his only child, in a way to be prepared for the Russians who were coming. And Mark grew up around guns. He grew up around, you know, essentially what he calls guerrilla warfare, the sort of avoidance tactics and theories that his dad prepared him in.
And then, when he got to prison, he felt like he should not be there. He didn’t understand the sentence. He didn’t understand the people around him and the menace that they represented. And he did what he had really learned to do as a child, and he escaped. He ran. He evaded the police. And, you know, he stayed out for only about 24 hours, but what he was able to do, he swam a river, he hotwired a car, and he was caught the next day in a motel—without a shootout, without any further real incident, but he had made his statement.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you set up the scene in your film? It’s when Dr. Berland meets Mark for the first time.
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah. Basically, Dr. Berland, who 30 years prior had said that Mark was faking mental illness, when I contacted him about the film, he essentially said, “If Mark DeFriest is still in prison, then I must have made a mistake.” And that catalyzed a whole series of steps that led to him going to meet Mark in prison. And Mark basically came blinking out of solitary confinement, really walleyed almost, in a physical way that you can see. He’s kind of heaving. He hasn’t really seen people. He hadn’t talked to people in two weeks. And he comes in and meets Dr. Berland for the first time in 30 years.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to that clip.
DR. ROBERT BERLAND: OK, I don’t know if you remember me. We met back in 1981. I was a lot younger then.
MARK DEFRIEST: I remember.
DR. ROBERT BERLAND: Let me just back up a little and start with why I’m even here today, lo these many years later, because I think it would help you understand where I’m coming from. It was my opinion now that my opinion then was inaccurate. There were things I didn’t know then that I know now that would have made me look at you differently. Everything would have been different. Are you OK talking with me?
MARK DEFRIEST: Sure.
DR. ROBERT BERLAND: OK. I’m going to read each of these sentences to you one at a time, and then you’re going to tell me if it’s true or false for you. All right. “I like mechanics magazines.” Is that true or false for you?
MARK DEFRIEST: True.
DR. ROBERT BERLAND: “I have a good appetite.”
MARK DEFRIEST: True.
DR. ROBERT BERLAND: “I wake up fresh and rested most mornings.”
MARK DEFRIEST: False.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark DeFriest meeting Dr. Robert Berland for the first time, the man who said he was faking his mental illness. What does it mean that he has changed his view? What did he say after this meeting with Mark?
GABRIEL LONDON: Basically, Dr. Berland, I think, got to do something that Mark and many people in prison should have the opportunity to do, which is to ask forgiveness and to be, in a sense, redeemed. There was a really interesting moment at the end of this scene where, in a sense, Dr. Berland says, “You know, there’s things that you do and say when you’re young that you later realize were wrong.” And it’s ironic as he stands across from Mark DeFriest, who really made a mistake as a 19-year-old and made a series of mistakes after he went to prison, largely, I believe, and I think many professionals believe, because of his psychological problems. But basically, Dr. Berland has this opportunity to go back and right a wrong. And that’s what we follow through the film.
AMY GOODMAN: When he went into prison, at what? He was 19 when this happened, 20, 21, when he went into prison? He was almost immediately gang-raped by 14 or 15 men.
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah. It was a common occurrence in Florida at that time. And there’s plenty of evidence on the record and court orders, you know, from the federal government down, demanding that Florida clean up its prison system at that time. And a big part of that was the fact that rape was a common occurrence and something that was basically unchecked. And, you know, Mark faced—as somebody who already had problems that were social, he didn’t have connections to other people. He didn’t have protection from other friends. He never aligned himself with a gang. He was always a walk-alone. Well, he was the perfect target for this problem of rape in prison, and he was gang-raped and ultimately had to make some very tough choices to survive.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest. This begins with Ron McAndrew, former warden of a notorious prison where Mark DeFriest was held. We then hear Mark himself.
RON McANDREW: I was a warden at Florida State Prison, the worst of the worst. It’s the prison that houses death row and the death chamber. And it was regarded as the hell hole of this Earth. It was a place that, if you just mentioned FSP to any offender anywhere in the state of Florida, you’d get his instant cooperation, because nobody wanted to be sent to Florida State Prison. And that was often done as punishment to prisoners around the state. If you couldn’t control them, if disciplinary measures didn’t help, then you would bag them up, put them on a bus, send them to Florida State Prison, and they’d come back with their tail between their legs.
MARK DEFRIEST: There’s no TV, there’s no radio, there’s no nothing. There’s nothing but death and drama and all the bull [bleep] that went along with it. It was a really depressing place, solitary confinement in a prison cell. Books and magazines are contraband. Do anything wrong, and they put you on the consolidated security, when you don’t get your one hour of yard per week. Not a day, a week. So you could go two, three, four, five, six, seven years and never see the yard.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mark DeFriest. Ten years of requests to see the sun denied?
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah. Mark was placed on what he calls the consolidated security list. So he was already in solitary confinement, but he was, because of rule violations. And many times you see with folks with mental illness in prison that they’re punished for their symptoms, and I think a lot of his violations relate to that. He was not even granted the one hour of yard per week where he could actually see the sun. And so, Mark literally, by the end of it, was saying, “I haven’t seen the sun, and my health is failing for lack of sun.”
AMY GOODMAN: At one point, Mark makes this gun while he was in prison and uses it in an escape attempt. He says in the film he did not intend to shoot at the guard, but he admits he did shoot the gun at the wall to see what it would do. His lawyer, John Middleton, explains how he was treated next.
JOHN MIDDLETON: They charged him with attempted murder. He was placed in solitary confinement, lived in total darkness in a small cell, was not allowed to communicate. There were post orders, and in the post orders, it states, “No clothes for prisoners. No mattress or sheets. No matches, cigarettes, etc. Conversation limited to business only.” Mr. DeFriest was deprived of all toiletries, was deprived of toilet paper, soap, tissue, toothpaste. The water was turned off in his cell. He could not flush his toilet. He could not bathe or shower. He had to eat without utensils and in the darkness.
AMY GOODMAN: That was his lawyer, John Middleton, explaining how Mark DeFriest was treated. Gabriel London?
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah. I mean, really, when you look at the conditions of confinement that Mark faced in Bay County Jail in 1981, it really flash-forwards to what we’ve seen in places like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, you know, when you think about the base humiliation that they put him through and the way that they really tortured him. They maced him in his cell. You know, this idea that you can put somebody in a confined space, and if they won’t stop yelling, you mace them, is completely ludicrous and also torturous. So, anyway, that was what led Mark to plead to a life sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, I want to interrupt you with your film, another clip of The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, when he’s explaining an escape attempt that involved LSD.
MARK DEFRIEST: They got pretty good security—iron bars and doors and all that [bleep]. But it ain’t all that tough, right? And so, my first plan was, I figured that I’d get everybody stoned. I got my hands on [inaudible]—you know what blotter acid is, right? LSD-25? The nurses’ station’s got a closet in there, where they got the brooms and mops and all that [bleep]. So I go in there, and shift change is at 4:00, but I waited ’til 3:30.
They got this coffee pot machine, and I took the whole bottle of [bleep] blotter acid. It was like maybe—I don’t know—75-100 tabs’ worth of it. So I dumped the whole thing in a fresh pot of coffee. That’s what I did. You know, all the outgoing staff drink it, all the incoming staff drink it. So, it’s like maybe 4:20 before it really starts to kick in, right? The plan was, when all these people started freaking out, I was going to pick the locks and go, right? I had all the clothes set up. I was all ready to go.
But it didn’t work out, man, because, first off, there was an incident with the aide in the washer/dryer room, the head aide, just like the Cuckoo’s Nest guy. You know how the dryer goes around and around and around? He got really freaked out about that, and he attacked the dryer. He beat the [bleep] out of the dryer. He ripped the door off, started kicking it and screaming. Then there was this little red-headed psychologist. She got a cup of coffee, and she’s walking down the center aisle of the ward with her hand between her legs, talking about [bleep].
Well, somebody got wise and called security, right? Before I could make my move, they surrounded the whole goddamn ward, [bleep] and locked it all down, right? They finally figured out the coffee had been poisoned. They didn’t catch me, though.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, that was Mark DeFriest explaining his escape attempt that involved LSD. That explains why the guards hate him.
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah. I mean, basically, Mark is a joker. He made a self-portrait of himself as a clown in a straitjacket. You know, he became a great illustrator in prison, and we ended up animating a lot of those scenes in order to bring them back to life. We worked with a company called Thought Café based in Toronto. And basically—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s astounding, the illustration, the animation.
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah, and it was really a way to bring people into the cell with him. It also cushions the blow a little bit. When you see the torture that he went through and a lot of the really darker pieces of this film, it actually is a way of filtering it to some extent. But really what you see in his case at this point is the punishment of these outbursts in his past that were really connected to, in a sense, his sense of humor, his playfulness, his failure to ever stop telling the same joke. And that’s something that comes up in the film, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Mental illness in prison, we just have a minute to go, but how it is dealt with? And some of the footage, the beatings of the guards, where did you get this footage?
GABRIEL LONDON: Well, there’s a lot of archive, and I was able to pull that from the Florida Memory Project. And it was really helpful. And ultimately, with mental illness, it’s a very delicate line. You know, there’s 2.2 million people in prison; 500,000 of them are believed to be mentally ill. And, you know, in Mark’s case, there was this long record of people finding him incompetent.
Now, how is that relevant to his current case? Well, he goes before the parole commission every couple of years, and they really have to look at whether there are mitigating circumstances in understanding his behavior in prison. And that’s really, I think, the way audiences are viewing the film. We’ve had a chance to tour around with the film, particularly in Florida, and allow them to really vote on what they think should happen with Mark.
AMY GOODMAN: You presented it to the parole board members. You screened this film.
GABRIEL LONDON: First, first. And that was what—that was on purpose, really, so that they didn’t feel like they were getting blindsided by audiences coming in and saying, “Hey, free Mark DeFriest.” You know—
AMY GOODMAN: Did they vote in your little—you’re holding a cardboard box. A ballot box?
GABRIEL LONDON: This box, this is the ballot box that asks on a ballot whether he should have conditional parole release. And 457 votes to two, overwhelmingly, said, yes, he should receive conditional parole release, which means there would be stipulations on his freedom. And I was able to tell the parole commission about that yesterday. And ultimately, I think that they will be swayed by Florida citizens and community members really saying, like, there is a responsibility of this body, as a democratic body, to actually look at the circumstances of the case and potentially offer redemption to this person.
AMY GOODMAN: He was married when he went into prison, and he is now married again, has been for over a decade, to another woman.
GABRIEL LONDON: Yes. His wife, Bonnie, is his loyal partner, who has been with him for 20 years and who very much wants him to come home to Oregon, where she lives. And there’s a parole plan that is being presented to the commission that really explains the services that he would receive, the places that he would live, the education opportunities that he would have.
AMY GOODMAN: The day of the parole board hearing, the special one they’ve set up?
GABRIEL LONDON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Is?
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we will follow it, too. Gabriel London, an astounding film. The new documentary is called The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest.
When we come back, Bryan Stevenson joins us, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stay with us.