After 36 years, most of them spent behind bars, the man whose seven successful prison escapes earned him the nickname of Florida’s “Prison Houdini” was granted parole by a state board on Thursday.
But Mark DeFriest is far from free. Although the Florida Commission on Offender Review granted his parole effective July 26, DeFriest next must report to prison in California, where a four-year sentence awaits for infractions he committed while housed in that state’s correctional system.
Still, his attorney John Middleton tells PEOPLE, “My hat’s off to the commission for recognizing and doing the right thing.” He says DeFriest is a long-time victim of a system that is not equipped to help those like DeFriest who have mental illness, and where his client’s initial 4-year sentence for a seemingly minor theft conviction led to nearly four decades in lockup.
Citing medical confidentiality regarding inmates, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections said she could not address DeFriest’s diagnosis or any possible treatment he received.
DeFriest’s efforts to break free, and which compounded the length of his time behind bars, grabbed attention.
In one instance, he says he poured LSD from the Florida State Hospital infirmary into a staff coffeepot, thinking the workers’ disorientation would clear the way for his exit. Security was alerted before he could try, The New York Times reported. In another, he memorized the zig-zag pattern of a guard’s master key and made a duplicate, says Middleton, which allowed him to break out of his cell but not the facility itself. In a third case, he earned a trip to the dentist by removing a tooth, then brandished an improvised prop gun he’d created in the wood shop to make a successful break.
A Florida parole commissioner who raised objections to DeFriest’s release noted that while DeFriest had successfully escaped seven times, his record showed numerous other attempts – 13 in all.
But Middleton and another DeFriest advocate, filmmaker Gabriel London, say DeFriest’s actions were those of a panicked man who felt cornered. “He also has multiple gang rapes, and he also has multiple beatings by guards,” Middleton says. “What would you do?”
Advocates: Mental Illness Led to Infractions
In California DeFriest will have access to mental health care he needs and is not currently receiving, Middleton says.
The irony of DeFriest’s case is that someone so adept at breaking out of confinement was mired in a bureaucratic snafu that threatened to keep him locked up even longer.
First sentenced in 1980 at age 19, DeFriest, now 55, has endured an unlikely odyssey.
He was convicted in 1980 for stealing tools that had been left to him in his deceased father’s will. But because he took those tools from his father’s shed prematurely, his stepmother called police on him. When they questioned him, he fled, with a gun in his possession, although he never pulled it, the Associated Press reports.
Five out of six court-appointed psychiatrists judged him mentally ill. The sixth said DeFriest was faking it; he was deemed fit to stand trial and convicted.
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Years later, that dissenting psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Berland, reversed his position, says London, who spent 13 years investigating his subject for the 2014 documentary The Mind of Mark DeFriest, available on Showtime on Demand and via streaming on DeFriest.com.
Berland said in 2009 that there is “incontrovertible data” indicating DeFriest has a significant but treatable ongoing psychotic disturbance that revolves around paranoid delusional thinking and mood disturbance, Middleton says. An autism expert also opined that DeFriest falls somewhere on the autism spectrum.
London tells PEOPLE that inmates with mental illness tend to rack up disciplinary violations more frequently. “I always tell people Mark is a savant,” he says. “Mark understands the machinery of the world, but he doesn’t really understand how people work.”
“Mark is a funny guy,” he adds. “He can be a troublemaker when he’s pushed in a corner. But he can also be the most cooperative, best guy to have on your side.”
After one early ’80s escape, however, DeFriest obtained a gun and used it to steal someone’s car. The incident resulted in an added life sentence. A judge later overturned the sentence after noting the harsh conditions of DeFreist’s detainment prior to his guilty plea: Ten days in a city jail with no clothes, no light, no toilet paper, Middleton says.
“He did point that gun at somebody,” the attorney says. “Pointing a gun certainly causes distress. But he never hurt anybody. Keep that in mind.”
“There are much worse people that have served much less time than Mark DeFriest.”
In 1999 DeFriest witnessed an inmate beating death, and was relocated for his safety to out-of-state prisons, London says. In a California prison he was disciplined for sneaking in contraband, thus earning the time he still faces there. Such cumulative punishments eventually meant he was ordered to serve until 2085, when he would have been 124 years old.
A Run of Good Behavior – Then a Papwerwork Mixup
After a run of good behavior, Florida’s parole commission – which retained jurisdiction over DeFriest – voted in December 2014 to move up his release date to March 2015 for good behavior.
Then, new disciplinary write-ups for the inmate caused the parole board to reconsider.
According to Middleton, DeFriest had been sent to New Mexico, and then Oregon, to serve his time. But due to a paperwork mix-up, Oregon officials did not know DeFriest’s life sentence had been lifted, and he was placed in a maximum security facility.
“I think he lost hope when he got shipped off to Oregon,” Middleton says. “It was supposed to be better, and it was actually 10 times worse.”
Says London: “He had a bad reaction essentially to being in harm’s way, and so he lost hope and got in some trouble.”
Meeting last February, the Florida parole board again placed DeFriest’s release on hold. But with the promise of cooperation from California, “which has programming and a place for [DeFriest] to come out a healthier person,” the board today affirmed its earlier decision, clearing the way for DeFriest to finish his time in California, London says.
“This is the best we could have expected by far,” he says.
Adds Middleton: “He’s not dangerous. I would not be afraid to have him in my house. If you put Mark in a corner, he’s going to do something to protect himself, and that’s what’s happened.”
“I’m not saying that Mark DeFriest is an easy person to deal with. But at the same time he does have mental health issues,” Middleton says. “The sad part of the story is the fact that it’s not a unique story. It’s unique because Mark is unique. But his treatment is not unique by the system.”