TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A prison “Houdini” who has been locked up for 36 years after stealing his own tools was supposed to have been paroled on Wednesday.
Instead, he has to serve at least six more months getting ready for freedom, because state prison authorities failed to communicate.
Mark DeFriest - described as an autistic savant by his lawyers - has endured tough discipline after staging elaborate escapes in the years since he was first jailed at 19. Now 55, he didn’t make it easier on himself by racking up nearly 400 disciplinary reports behind bars.
Florida parole commissioners have acknowledged that DeFriest’s mental health issues haven’t been handled well in prison. They decided back in 2014 that he had done his time, and told prison officials to prepare him for re-entry in society.
Instead, he was treated as a lifer, classified ineligible for re-entry programs. The parole commission has known this for months, but still hasn’t been able to resolve the mixup between prison authorities in Florida and Oregon, where DeFriest was moved in preparation for his release.
DeFriest has stayed out of trouble since 2012, but the inmate lost his patience when he learned his new release date: Aug. 23.
“August? Huh. You’ve got to be …,” DeFriest said with a frustrated laugh, his voice trailing off while talking by phone from Oregon to Gabriel London, a filmmaker who made a documentary about his case and attended the hearing in Tallahassee.
“We got a lot of stuff accomplished here today here, man,” London responded.
“I understand that you’re concerned right now … you’re in a dangerous situation. You’re in a bad, practically solitary cell,” London told him. “I feel bad for you, believe me I do, but I want you to understand how complicated this all is.”
DeFriest’s case has never been as simple as it appeared in his ever-expanding prison file.
DeFriest has autism but functions at a high level, which makes it hard for prison officials to understand why he’s had trouble following rules, say London and DeFriest’s lawyer, John Middleton.
Parole Commissioner Tena Pate said he’s been hurt by a system that reacts to behavior, rather than treating it.
“Some of the behaviors that he was exhibiting, I think, were not dealt with appropriately within the Department of Corrections,” she said. “He has served his time, and I believe that our systems of institutions are not the proper place for someone with these issues.”
If DeFriest had only waited for his father’s will to be read before taking the tools, he never would have been convicted of burglary. If he hadn’t managed to escape seven times in 13 attempts, his time wouldn’t have been extended to the point that he wouldn’t get out until the age of 124.
After a 1981 escape, authorities in Bay County left him in total darkness with no clothes, no blankets, no toilet paper and no human contact for 11 days. He’s been assaulted several times, and spent years without being allowed yard time.
That’s why he kept trying to escape - not because he wasn’t willing to complete his sentence, the lawyer said.
“It’s time that Florida’s moved him on,” Pate agreed.
DeFriest has been held out of state for his own protection since testifying against guards in Florida who beat a prisoner to death in 1999. He was placed with low risk prisoners in work programs in New Mexico when the parole commission erased decades from his sentences in 2014. It moved him to Oregon to be closer to his wife in preparation for his release. Instead, Oregon prisons classified him as a high-security lifer, London said.
Florida Department of Corrections spokesman McKinley Lewis couldn’t explain this on Wednesday. He said Oregon officials were sent Florida’s release plan, along with his entire prison file. Oregon prison officials wouldn’t comment either, saying he’s still Florida’s inmate, even when imprisoned in Oregon.
Commissioners agreed Wednesday that DeFriest will be paroled immediately if Oregon doesn’t place him in the pre-release programs they ordered in 2014. But he still has a two-year sentence to serve in California and eight months in Alabama, for prison infractions including possessing a cell key and testing positive for marijuana.
Middleton is working with officials in California and Alabama to get those remaining sentences thrown out or reduced.
DeFriest’s advocates tried to persuade him that his freedom is within reach now, but said his autism makes that hard for him to understand.
“A lot of good things happened today,” Middleton told him by phone. As DeFriest began to complain, Middleton raised his voice to cut him off. “Hey! Hey! Hey Mark! Mark! Mark! You don’t have to believe what’s going to happen, and when it happens you can say, ‘Damn, I was wrong.’”
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