After committing a crime in 1979, 19-year-old Mark DeFriest was sentenced to four years in prison. He has now been behind bars for more than 30 years.
“The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest” screened at the Cosford Cinema on Saturday and was followed by a question and answer session with filmmaker Gabriel London.
In 1979, DeFriest’s father had promised to give his son his tools as a way to remember him. After his father passed away that year, DeFriest took the tools from the garage, but his stepmother called the police claiming that he had stolen the tools from her. When the sheriff approached DeFriest’s porch, he fled, beginning a streak that would later make him infamous among jailers, wardens, doctors and newspapers.
Despite being found incompetent to be sentenced by five of six court-appointed psychiatrists because of symptoms of schizophrenia and Asperger syndrome, DeFriest was given a four-year sentence and has been in numerous prisons since 1980.
He has made 13 escape attempts, which have continued to add years to his sentence, adding up to a release date of 2085. DeFriest is one of around 3,200 non-violent offenders serving a life sentence, according to aclu.org.
“If I was a rapist or a murderer, they’d let me out,” DeFriest says in the film. “But I’m the idiot who made them look like idiots.”
London has followed this story for eight years after first hearing about DeFriest while working on a documentary to accompany the Human Rights Watch report “No Escape: Prison Rape in America.”
“Mark was being punished because he was the biggest pain the ass,” London said.
London discussed issues in the legal and penal system regarding mental health.
“This is a giant ballooning of society’s problems and prison is the catch-all,” he said.
According to London, DeFriest’s story has two purposes. One is to make the public aware of this man who has been sentenced to 27 years of solitary confinement in Florida’s toughest prisons (his room was two floors above the death chamber where prisoners like Ted Bundy were executed) for a nonviolent crime and subsequent escape attempts. The other purpose is to raise awareness about the injustices committed in the penal system.
“It’s not a campaign to embarrass anyone,” London said when asked how the system could allow this treatment. “The audience can act upon this.”
After being asked if the parole committee had seen the film, he immediately answered that he brought it to them. Tena Pate, one of the chair commissioners in charge of granting DeFriest the possibility of parole, called it “fair and well-done.”
In February, London had seen DeFriest, now in his 50s; he had been in the hospital due to a spider bite and was “really skinny.”
According to London, DeFriest “is not the perfect victim,” which makes the story more realistic, but also more difficult to tell because it is hard to determine how culpable DeFriest is for his actions.
DeFriest’s next parole hearing is set for Nov. 19 where his case will go before the Florida Commission on Offender Review.
To learn more about DeFriest and the ongoing case, visit DeFriest.com.