Some of the details are hard to remember.
After all, Don Gladish said, he hasn’t worked at Florida State Prison for years.
But yes, he does remember Mark DeFriest.
“Mark DeFriest,” Gladish said. “Yes, know him well.”
DeFriest is known as the “prison Houdini,” a man who has spent years confounding and frustrating corrections officials — and has famously spent years paying for it, too. He’s the subject of a documentary. You might have seen his name in news reports before.
Gladish, who is now retired, remembers DeFriest from the Florida State Prison, where Gladish used to work as a corrections officer, sergeant and lieutenant. DeFriest was an inmate with a bit of a reputation.
“He was an escape artist,” Gladish told The Washington Post this week. “He was probably one of the most brilliant inmates that, in my career, that I ever remember.”
There were, Gladish said, just very few places that could ever contain DeFriest, security-wise. His cell was almost always on the second floor, if Gladish could recall. That’s where corrections officers would put inmates they really needed to monitor, if you know what he means.
(Remember how he said DeFriest was an escape artist? That’s what he means.)
“He’s out of prison now, isn’t he?” Gladish asked.
Well. Not exactly.
Mark DeFriest is now 56 years old. Most of his life has been spent in Florida’s prison system. DeFriest was initially imprisoned as a young man, convicted of taking his father’s tools after his death. He was supposed to spend a few years behind bars.
But repeated escape attempts and other disciplinary issues have compounded his problems. They’ve also earned him the “prison Houdini” nickname — which you might have seen in headlines over the years, as his stint behind bars stretched on.
“Well, he was a mischievous type of guy,” said Gladish, who also said DeFriest was “a very notorious individual, very threatening individual” at the state prison. “He always wanted to, I guess, try the system, and see if he could manipulate the system.”
And he did. Frequently.
DeFriest escaped seven times in 13 attempts, according to the Associated Press:
He was able to memorize the pattern on guards’ keys and duplicate them with paper. He crafted makeshift guns from materials he found in prison. He was able to climb over razor wire. In one escape, he stole a car and broke into a friend’s home.
“I would describe Mark as a beautiful mind who has been in a really ugly place,” said Gabriel London, director of the 2014 documentary film “The Mind of Mark DeFriest.” “When I say that, it’s just that Mark DeFriest, from the time he was a really little kid, had this brilliant ability with mechanics and all things electronics, and he always had a social awkwardness in his family, and a lot of people around him didn’t know what to do with him.
“And I think society mirrored that.”
But after decades in prison, his time behind bars might be ending in a matter of years.
“We turned this sinking ship around!” read a July post on the “Mind of Mark DeFriest” Facebook page, which carried news of a promising update. “Now let’s see if we can get him to freedom in the next couple years… Dignity, recovery then freedom. It’s been and will continue to be an unbelievable odyssey.”
There is hope for DeFriest and his supporters, because Florida’s parole board voted to release him from the state’s prison system. He is now incarcerated in California, where he has to serve time for a drug-related offense, according to the Associated Press.
But if his record remains clean, DeFriest could be released from custody in just a couple of years.
“He’s not a murderer, he’s not a rapist, he doesn’t have a history of violence,” Florida Commission on Offender Review Chairwoman Melinda Coonrod said in July during a debate before the board’s vote, according to the Associated Press. “He’s in the worst situation that he has been in for a long time. The system has failed him, and we put him there.”
Said London, the documentary filmmaker: “This is the best-case scenario we could have had. … He will go to California, and he will be given a chance to start again, and hopefully to eventually get out in a couple years.”
London wrote in 2008 that he first learned of DeFriest’s case years earlier, while researching another documentary.
The Facebook page for his film now posts frequent updates on DeFriest’s case, and London has become an advocate for the inmate.
“It’s really frustrating for people who are fans of the film, who are looking on Facebook and seeing that we post good news, and then they’re like, ‘well, but why isn’t he out, this is so cruel?'” London said. “It is. It’s unfair that Mark has been in prison as long as he has. But at the same time, I’ve been really conscious in the last couple months that what Mark needs more than anything is sort of a restoration of dignity and humane treatment. And that’s what I believe he’s going to get. And then he’ll be on the road to getting out.”
DeFriest is now being held in Kern Valley State Prison, according to a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and is scheduled for parole in the summer of 2018.
He is receiving “amazing support” in California, according to another Facebook update. If all goes well, the update notes, DeFriest will be celebrating at an “epic freedom party” in a few years.
London described DeFriest as a joker, with a “real sense of humor.” He can be gregarious, London said, and he can be funny and outgoing. DeFriest, who is married, has a hard time reading situations and people, according to London, but was “the greatest escape artist that I think the state has ever known.”
“This is a guy who could eyeball keys on a keychain that the guards were wearing and make a master key,” London said. “The same guy who was able to mastermind plots to jump out of windows after he cut through bars. And he’s somebody who through his own inventiveness, survived 36 years in some of the harshest conditions of American prisons imaginable.”
An Associated Press report from July describes DeFriest as “an autistic savant — an incredibly intelligent man who couldn’t handle the prison system because of his mental health issues.” According to the AP, DeFriest was initially handed a four-year sentence after he was convicted of the tool theft more than three decades ago.
But then there were the escape plots and other disciplinary problems. It culminated in what the Associated Press has called a “virtual life sentence.”
A Florida Department of Corrections spokesman said in an email that DeFriest spent about 17 years in “close management” — when an inmate is kept away from the general population — and had an “extensive” disciplinary history.
In 2014, though, Florida’s parole commission voted to move up his release date, bumping 70 years off, according to the Associated Press. That news report indicated DeFriest had been housed out of state since the late 1990s, after he witnessed a fatal inmate beating at Florida State Prison and testified against a prison guard.
Before his latest move to California, he had been housed in Oregon, where he was still considered Florida’s inmate.
That time in Oregon did not go well, accounts indicate.
DeFriest, whose attorney said was housed in a maximum-security facility due to a misclassification, had been held in solitary confinement, said London.
In that time, his health had deteriorated.
“He has no teeth right now, so he can’t chew food,” said London, who also added that DeFriest had “a lot of untreated maladies” that should be treated in people his age, but hadn’t been.
Although he is out of the Oregon facility and the Florida prison system, DeFriest is not yet a free man. His attorney, John Middleton, told The Post that the parole board made a “wise and humane” decision to send him to California, where he still has to serve time.
“This was really a decision by Florida to try and, I think, take Mark out of a situation that’s just not tenable and try in California to give him something else,” said London, the filmmaker.
Middleton said California officials will be able to identify mental-health treatment for DeFriest, and he’ll be able to get re-entry programs that he needs. The terms of the parole can change if DeFriest continues to receive disciplinary reports, Middleton said.
“I think Mark DeFriest can make it,” Middleton said. “And I think he can make it in California if he has some hope, real hope.”