The Mind of Mark DeFriest tells the bizarre story of an inmate whose greatest crime may have been failing to fit in.
Mark DeFriest has been likened at times to Harry Houdini and James Bond. But a more apt comparison may be to Jean Valjean. Or MacGyver.
He can turn a tube of toothpaste into a zip gun. Or a lunch tray into a key.
Those skills have at times won him momentary freedom, but he's never been able to escape a cruel destiny that's kept him behind bars for most of his 54 years.
I just got drawn into this story and couldn’t let go.
He was first sent to prison in Florida at age 20 for "stealing" a set of tools that his father had willed him (his offense was not waiting until the will had been formally probated). By the time filmmaker Gabriel London heard about him, DeFriest's original prison term had ballooned into a life sentence; he had attempted to escape more than a dozen times, endured gang rape and decades of solitary confinement. And his parole date was set for 2085. It looked certain he would die in prison.
London's film, "The Mind of Mark DeFriest," now airing on Showtime and Showtime on Demand, makes a case that DeFriest would have been released long ago had prison officials acknowledged he was mentally ill. Instead they appeared intent on punishing DeFriest's unorthodox behavior -- piling onto his sentence the more he failed to conform.
Nonfictionfilm.com editor Matt Carey spoke with London about his documentary and its dramatic impact on the fortunes of Mark DeFriest. This is an edited version of the conversation.
Nonfictionfilm: When did you first hear about Mark DeFriest?
Gabriel London: Basically like 13 years ago. I was knee-deep in research on a documentary with Human Rights Watch about prison rape... I came across Mark's story in the Miami Herald, in an article called "Locked Alone in X Wing"... [which described him] as this escape artist, this guy who was the only person on X Wing-- this draconian wing of the Florida State Prison-- who had never physically harmed another individual. That sort of got me.
And then just like the very next day, just by a pure coincidence that felt like being struck by lightning-- or twice by lightning-- I had a call with a woman who ran an organization called Stop Prisoner Rape and she said, just a propos of nothing, "I have 15 years of letters from [a guy named] Mark DeFriest." I asked her to send me those letters and I basically from that was hooked... These incredible letters brought me into this dark, dark world and [Mark's] particularly inventive way of surviving it.
NFF: You worked on the film for over a decade. There must have been some moments of uncertainty about whether you would ever complete it.
My identity at one point really I think got fused with this story.
Gabriel: Actually many, many moments of doubt, of wondering whether I would be able to, you know, get it done. My identity at one point really I think got fused with this story. People that had known me for years... I had been talking about [it] to them and sort of saying, "This is this incredible story and yeah, I'm going to get it made into a movie." And I think people... never really believed it until it was said and done.
NFF: In the film you explore how Mark first ran afoul of the law.
Gabriel: Mark went to prison when he was 20, right, for a small crime that was really a dispute with his stepmother over his father's will. It was the kind of story where Mark wasn't completely innocent in the sense that when the cops showed up he didn't know how to handle it -- he ran... I started digging through the records, a lot of evidence that there were psychiatrists-- people who had looked [at] and evaluated Mark-- and said that he was both incredibly traumatized by the death of his father and also mentally incompetent, basically, of participating in the legal process, incapable of sort of understanding how the criminal justice system worked... But as I dug deeper I started to realize there were a lot of questions as to whether it was right that he still be incarcerated. For me it became one of the stories -- you're called to tell it because it's a great story that's never been told. And then at the same time it started to feel like maybe it was an important story that could shed a light on some of the bigger societal problems we have with mass incarceration and in particular with locking up the mentally ill in prisons instead of giving them mental health care. I just got drawn into this story and couldn't let it go.
NFF: How would you describe Mark?
Gabriel: He is somebody who I think in many ways doesn't understand how he comes across to other people or how to read other people. He has always been I think a personable and a funny guy.
He knew how to make guns out of wood... Somebody who is both incredibly brilliant in some ways but very tone deaf.
I was always hip to the idea that he might be quote unquote "mentally ill," but I didn't know what the diagnosis was... I mean there were questions as to whether he was schizophrenic or bipolar, what have you... What's been fascinating -- audiences have come up to me after [screenings] and wondered if we had ever looked into [a diagnosis of] autism or Asperger's. And if you know somebody with the character traits of Asperger's [that's] one of the ways that people can maybe understand Mark... somebody who is both incredibly brilliant in some ways but very tone deaf. He has a conscience but he doesn't really understand your feelings.
NFF: Mark successfully escaped prison facilities seven times. Can you describe some of the ingenious methods of escape he devised?
Gabriel: One of the pieces that we touch on in the film is that even after he was given this incredibly difficult cell to be locked in -- it had double doors, it was like a rail car that would be sealed off and no windows -- he was able to eyeball the keys on the chains of the different guards and in his own mind figure out the key [teeth] heights and then use the plastic lunch trays to carve a key. But not just any key. It was a key that was "multi-plexing," that had adjustable teeth that could fit multiple locks.
He knew how to fashion zip guns, which is to say he knew how to make guns out of wood and, you know, paper -- if he could make a chamber out of it he could figure out a way to strip the heads off of matches [for powder] and have a gun that he could use more as a threat -- he never hurt anybody with these zip guns.
Mark also wasn't allowed to have radios but the guys on death row were allowed to... Once one of these guys were executed an inmate porter would slide the radio through Mark's food slot and basically Mark could take that radio and in very short order solder the circuits onto two sides and basically make a radio small enough that he could fit it inside his body... He could take this out and actually have music in his solitary cell and I think it was a huge way he was able to survive... Yes, there was a cat and mouse game [between Mark and prison authorities] that was always going on but he was always just first and foremost trying to make it through another day.
NFF: Mark seemed to provoke people, whether that was his intention or not. How much does the length of his stay in prison have to do with people kind of insisting on breaking him?
GL: He was a non-violent guy who was a huge nuisance and a troublemaker so they didn't feel like they wanted him "in population" just because he stirred up trouble and he also didn't know how to stop reacting to their provocations... There's other guards around him who really hate him and who want to make a point of him and sort of break him in some way and I think that's always the way it's been. There's been certain folks in the system who have a tolerance for him and a certain subset of people that just make no allowances for his mental health issues -- they don't have any understanding of where he's coming from... In the prison system you'd like to see some universal application of rights. You'd like there to be a general understanding of how to manage certain types of inmates, especially the mentally ill, and it's just not the case. There is a great randomness to how the system operates. And Mark happened to get stuck in a very downward spiral sort of situation and just never came out of it.
NFF: Has Mark had an opportunity to see the film?
GL: No. Mark has seen the trailer.
NFF: You showed your film to Florida Parole Commissioners and it had quite an impact on them.
GL: Mark's case came up for parole during the year that [the film was] released-- last year, in 2014. Instead of it being just his lawyer writing into the Parole Commission and presenting a case it ended up being hundreds of different voices from our screenings that wrote letters to the Parole Commission... and that was just cool. In a sense I was able to say to the Commission, "I want you to know you're going to be hearing from more people. I want you to see the film." I showed them the film. I think that they felt that they were included in the process and the conversation and then ultimately, yeah, they made a big decision [to move up his parole eligibility].
It's an ongoing case but suffice to say that what was in many ways a tragic story is being rewritten in part by the audience with a happier ending. And that was unexpected and just kind of a true gift of active storytelling I guess you could say.
NFF: Do you think he will be released this year or it's not possible to say?
GL: Mark is looking at up to five more years [in prison] based on parole-ineligible sentences that he received in the early 90s and early 2000s... Those sentences are related to contraband [for instance, distilling apple juice into alcohol in a shampoo bottle]. So I think over the next few months people just need to watch and be part of the story. And we're asking people to watch the film, be the jury that Mark never had and then add their voice to the conversation because thus far it really has been the voices of people that have made a huge difference in this story.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.