Florida Keys

Film tells dark tale of Mark DeFriest, the long-imprisoned ‘Houdini of Florida’

The last time Mark DeFriest was a free person was in 1980, when he was a 19-year-old with a new wife.
The last time Mark DeFriest was a free person was in 1980, when he was a 19-year-old with a new wife.

In 2001, Gabriel London was researching prison rape for a book with Human Rights Watch when he came upon a 1990s special report in the Miami Herald called Locked Alone in X Wing, about the draconian world of crime and punishment for the worst of the worst criminals at the Florida State Prison in Starke.

London was intrigued with the inmate pictured in the middle of the “X.” It was a young Mark DeFriest, nicknamed the “Houdini of Florida” for his multiple, clever jailbreaks — and the only nonviolent inmate housed in the horrific solitary confinement ward one floor above the electric chair.

The next day, London contacted the founder of the organization Stop Prisoner Rape on an unrelated matter. She told him about an inmate who had been sending her letters for 15 years. His name: Mark DeFriest.

The letters led to London’s dramatic documentary film, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, which tells the “deep, dark tale” of a married 19-year-old mechanic who was arrested in 1980 for stealing his deceased father’s tools, which were willed to him but not yet probated.

That simple misunderstanding has spiraled into 34 years in prison, where DeFriest has been gang raped, nearly beaten to death by prisoners and guards, and gone years without seeing the sun. He’s highly intelligent but mentally ill, a combination that has made it difficult for him to navigate a penal system that doesn’t know how to deal with him.

The documentary is being shown at Florida International University Law School at 1 p.m. Friday and at the University of Miami Cosford Cinema at 7 p.m. Saturday. It also will screen at the Tropic Cinema during the Key West Film Festival at 2:45 p.m. Nov. 15 and 5:30 p.m. Nov. 16.

On Nov. 19, DeFriest’s case goes before the Florida Commission on Offender Review for a parole hearing in Tallahassee. DeFriest’s longtime attorney, John Middleton, has put together a comprehensive parole plan that includes a place to live in Oregon with his wife. He met her through a pen pal list and married her by proxy in prison 20 years ago. His first wife long ago divorced him.

“They can’t say he was a perfect prisoner, but they can say that the reason he wasn’t a perfect prisoner is his long documented issues of mental illness and what is the parole board going to do about it?” London said.

Middleton said DeFriest has already spent far more time in prison than his crimes warranted. What’s keeping DeFriest in prison, Middleton says, is a thick file filled with hundreds of disciplinary reports amassed over the decades, most of which were for minor offenses or even created by guards who wanted to teach him a lesson.

“He’s not shanking or stabbing anyone,” Middleton says. The reports are “for possessing contraband. He’s made his own alcohol. He’s had weapons, usually defensive. He has not hurt people.”

In 1981, DeFriest was put in solitary confinement for 10 or 11 days with no clothes, running water, light, mattress or toiletries after an escape attempt with a homemade zip gun made from a toothpaste tube.

To get out of that “hell hole,” DeFriest agreed to plead to a life sentence. After it was a done deal, Middleton was hired by DeFriest’s mother to get that plea overturned. Middleton did and has continued over the decades to represent DeFriest, now for free.

During London’s research, he tracked down two seemingly unlikely supporters for DeFriest: the state psychiatrist who declared in 1981 that DeFriest was faking mental illness and the warden who was at Florida State Prison at the time when DeFriest was a prisoner in its X Wing. The warden, Ron McAndrew, said the goon squad was out to get DeFriest and had made up disciplinary reports against him.

The film opens with Dr. Robert Berland conducting mental competency tests on DeFriest at an undisclosed prison facility in 2009. Nearly 30 years earlier, Berland went against the findings of four other psychiatrists and declared that DeFriest was mentally competent. His finding was the one accepted by the court.

DeFriest’s wife, Bonnie, says he has a big heart, which led her to marry him and become his biggest advocate. In a telephone interview, she said he sponsored three orphaned children from India with money made selling contraband in prison.

“Through his letters I could see he was a good person in his soul and in a lot of emotional pain,” she said. “I love him on a much deeper level than I have ever loved anyone.”

London’s film delves into DeFriest’s childhood, in which his beloved father taught him how to use guns and how to work with his hands.

“Mark had this tragic gift,” London said. “The fact he was brilliant enough to keep escaping was the thing that dug his grave.”

DeFriest was able to break out of jails during his younger years because he was able to make keys out of just about anything, including soap and a religious medallion.

For the past few years, Middleton, London, Berland and Bonnie DeFriest have worked to give DeFriest hope that if he can behave in jail there is a possibility he may get out.

He has steered his creativity into detailed illustrations, intricate pop-up cards and miniature rocking chairs that he made out of the lining of potato chip bags.

“Lately, he has taken up knitting and crocheting,” Bonnie DeFriest said. “He’s done a good job, made me a shawl without dropping a stitch.”

Between the last parole hearings depicted in the film, his only disciplinary offenses were for improper use of phone privileges and having alcohol created from apple juice fermented in a shampoo bottle.

Still, the parole board added more time to his scheduled parole date.

“I know people who are walking out on the street who have killed, or were involved in killing two or more people,” Middleton said. “The only thing keeping Mark in prison is the inability of the system to deal with Mark.”

DeFriest is far from the “young and dumb” teenager with long blond hair and a carefree life that just wanted to get the tools his father promised him on his death bed.

He’s now a 54-year-old, gray-haired man who wears a hearing aid. He said in a recent telephone interview that his life in prison has “been quite a ride, I guess,” and laughs.

“I’m still alive and I kind of like to forget it all and get on with my life and do something intelligent with it,” he said.

And he’d like to take care of Bonnie, who is 30 years older than he is and struggles to get around with arthritis. “She needs me now to take care of her and I’d like to return the favor.”