DeFriest during the filming of The Mind of Mark DeFriest
August 18, 1960|
Gadsden County, Florida, United States
|Other names||Houdini of Florida|
|Criminal penalty||4 years+|
Mark DeFriest (born August 18, 1960), known as the Houdini of Florida, is an American prisoner of the United States. In 1978, he was arrested and served a year in prison. In 1980, DeFriest retrieved work tools that his recently deceased father had willed him before the will officially went through probate. This act was considered theft and his stepmother called the police, which led to his arrest. DeFriest was sentenced to four years in prison because he was in possession of firearms which violated his probation. The original four-year sentence has since developed into 34 years for 13 escape attempts—seven of them successful—and hundreds of disciplinary reports for minor infractions. He also picked up an armed robbery charge when he used a gun to steal a car during one escape attempt.
In 34 years, he’s collectively spent 27 of them in solitary confinement.
DeFriest grew up in the rural area of Gadsden County, Tallahassee, Florida working with his father. He was a known savant who could not quite understand people, but was able to build or fix just about anything. At six years old, he was disassembling and reassembling watches and even engines. He often devised and conducted elaborate science experiments in his family’s basement, saying he blew himself up a few times. His mechanical ingenuity only expanded, along with his behavioral difficulties.
DeFriest was close with his father, who encouraged his mechanical abilities, and the two had what filmmaker Gabriel London calls "a mechanical connection." His father had served in World War II with the OSS, a predecessor to the CIA. This experience likely prompted Mark’s father to teach his son the avoidance tactics, survival, and defense techniques that Mark describes as guerilla warfare. His father died suddenly in 1979, but in his will, left his tools to Mark.
Shortly after his father died, Mark took the tools his father promised him before the will had gone through probate; this was considered theft even though DeFriest was assessed as mentally unwell at the time. Mark’s stepmother called the police, which led to the arrest that landed him in multiple prisons. When the police came for DeFriest, he ran from them out of panic. He took a gun with him, but never used it or even brandished it before the officers.
Mental state and legal competence
Five out of six psychiatrists deemed him incompetent and mentally ill. At the time, the dissenting psychiatrist Dr. Robert Berland believed DeFriest was faking his mental illness, which included assuming false identities and compulsive escape attempts. Based on Berland’s assessment, the court allowed DeFriest to stand trial and he accepted a life sentence. Berland reversed his assessment decades later.
Diagnosing mental disorders in the prison system is still a topic of contention today. Three decades ago, there was no system for treating mental health in prisons and no way to help people like DeFriest. Today, professionals think his behavioral problems are likely associated with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, impairing the ability to develop social skills and understand the emotions of others.
He made his first escape after a month at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, where he put LSD-25 from the hospital’s pharmacy into the staff’s coffee. His plan was to slip out while the staff was under the drug's influence. Unfortunately for him, security was called as some of the staff were having various freak-outs from the LSD. The ward was locked down before he could make his move. During his first escape, he and a few other prisoners made a run for the wall. DeFriest got over the fence and hot-wired a car before authorities recaptured and sent him to Bay County Jail. During his time in prison, DeFriest attempted 13 escapes total with astonishing resourcefulness. He could replicate keys after memorizing their patterns, and make them out of anything available. He fashioned a zip gun out of a toothpaste tube. His cleverness led to seven successful escapes out of thirteen, but outraged the guards at every facility. The "escape artist" reputation that followed led to almost 40 years in harsh prison conditions.
In one escape, Defriest stole a car using a gun. As a result, he got an armed robbery charge.
Treatment in prison
In 1982 he was transferred to Florida State Prison (FSP), an infamous facility where things only got worse. Ron McAndrew, FSP’s warden from 1996 to 1998, describes the northern Florida prison as "ungovernable" where the correctional officers beat and degraded inmates and even encouraged violence among prisoners. He says correctional officers despised DeFriest, and felt intimidated by his intellect, only making DeFriest’s prison life worse as a prime target for staff and inmates.
For the "escape artist," Florida State Prison’s solitary confinement served as an "escape-proof" cell, one that The Miami Herald reported held the only nonviolent inmate in the solitary confinement ward—one floor above the electric chair. There, prison officials deprived DeFriest of just about everything: books, magazines, radio, TV, windows and sunlight, even water and toiletries for 11 days.
He is highly intelligent but mentally ill, a combination in direct conflict with a penal system not equipped to handle offenders with psychiatric disorders. He had committed minor offenses and mischief he saw as pranks throughout his time in prison. McAndrew thinks that guards who hoped to prolong his captivity fabricated the majority of the 209 disciplinary reports that accumulated over decades.
Middleton told the Miami Herald "He’s not shanking or stabbing anyone. The reports are for possessing contraband. He’s made his own alcohol. He’s had weapons, usually defensive. He has not hurt people." In fact, none of the charges against DeFriest involved violence.
In 1999 he witnessed the fatal beating of Frank Valdes, convicted for the murder of a correctional officer. DeFriest was a few cells away and confirmed the medical examiner’s conclusion: Valdes was beaten to death. For his protection, DeFriest was transferred to a prison in California.
In his review of the film Michael O’Sullivan wrote, "London turns the portrait of an escape artist into a powerful indictment of the American prison system, which many reformers, London included, argue merely warehouses the mentally ill."
Parole hearing and prisoner status
In the last 15 years, efforts to persuade the Florida government and parole board to release DeFriest include petitions by his wife Bonnie DeFriest (whom he met through a pen-pal list) legal representation by John Middleton, psychiatrist Dr. Robert Berland’s recant of his assessment of DeFriest in the 80s and outspoken reports by former warden of FSP Ron McAndrew.
DeFriest’s parole hearing on Nov. 19, 2014 in Tallahassee reduced his potential release date from 2085 to March 2015—an unprecedented reduction of 845 months. A potential release date of March 2015 was established, but DeFriest also has outstanding sentences for marijuana and contraband possession. Today, he is still in prison, and may be for up to five more years to serve those outstanding sentences.
- "HuffPost Live - Documentary Profiles Mark DeFriest". huffingtonpost.com.
- "PRISON HOUDINI - Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte Newspaper - News, Business, Real Estate and Arts in Charlotte County FL - Florida". floridaweekly.com.
- "Filmmaker Gabriel London On Why Inmate Mark DeFriest's Sentence Is A Case For Prison Reform". The Huffington Post.
- "DeFriest: Mental Illness Behind Bars". The Huffington Post.
- "Hot Docs Review: The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest". Cinema Axis.
- "Film tells dark tale of Mark DeFriest, the long-imprisoned 'Houdini of Florida'". miamiherald.
- Michael O'Sullivan (12 March 2015). "Review: 'The Mind of Mark DeFriest' looks at a man behind bars — for now". Washington Post.
- "Two inmates, one deaf, the other mentally ill, seek mercy from Florida parole commission". miamiherald.
- "Take Action - The Mind of Mark DeFriest".