Mark DeFriest, nicknamed “The Prison Houdini”, has been described as a man with an incredibly high IQ but displays a lack of mental competency. Earning his nickname from his 13 escape attempts, seven of which were successful, DeFriest’s story is beginning to gain some notoriety due to the efforts of an independent film maker.
DeFriest’s story began in 1979. Mark was only 19 when his father had passed away, but before he passed he promised Mark his set of tools. Before the estate was settled Mark attempted to go pick up his dad’s old toolset, much to the dismay of his step-mother. Although the matter could have been reduced to a simple civil matter, Mark fled the police after they were called by his step-mother and he was sentenced to four years in a Florida prison.
Prison was not kind to Mark. Victimized by other prisoners and guards alike, Mark began his escape attempts. Memorizing patterns for the guard’s keys, Mark was able to replicate them with paper. In another attempt he hopped the razor wire surrounding the complex, hotwired a car and broke into a friend’s house. One time Mark even managed to use LSD smuggled into the prison to escape by slipping it into the guard’s coffee. In spite of Mark’s wild antics, what would tack on the most additional time wasn’t one of his escape attempts. Fashioning a zip gun in a craft class, Mark fired it at the wall to test if it worked, earning him an attempted murder charge to add to his rap sheet.
Turning four years into a life sentence, Mark’s case has evolved into a heated debate between the prison system and the mental health community. Mark’s lawyers, along with the film maker responsible for taking his story public, petitioned the courts to re-examine Mark’s case. Attributing his behavioral problems to Mark’s mental condition, believed to be a high functioning form of autism, his defense team is hoping that Mark could be eligible for some sort of transitional program rather than prison. Mark’s lawyer, John Middleton, stated in regards to his client “Mark is not a violent person, has never hurt anybody. He’s been his own worst enemy in jail by escaping and committing some crimes,”.
Middleton’s statements made before the parole board were favorable, and Mark is looking at being released in March of 2015. The story of Mark DeFriest is an interesting one, but it has also shed light on how poorly the prison system is equipped to handle people with mental disorders or illness. Mark’s is just one of many stories that open up the floor for debate on the measures that should be taken in order to ensure that inmates are being diagnosed and worked with properly. DeFriest’s problematic behaviors are simply a symptom of his disorder that would have been better handled if the system had the proper authorities within the mental health community to work with these types of inmates. Prison isn’t meant to be fun, and mental disorders do not condone an inmate’s complete disregard for prison rules and regulations, but with the right therapies and treatment options available, prisoners and prison authorities alike will have better outcomes in regards to the amount of disruptive or dangerous behaviors within the institution.