The Mind of Mark DeFriest
This was part of our LAFF 2014 coverage.
The reprieve in a film about corruption is the relief of knowing it’s fiction. When watching a documentary that safety blanket of denial isn’t an option. The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest is the sort of documentary that reveals an uncomfortable truth: our one size fits all penal system not only doesn’t always fit the crime, but is often lost on the mind of someone whose brain doesn’t operate by the same code as much of society. Mark DeFriest is a man with such a mind. Called the Houdini of the Florida state prison system for all the times he managed to escape, DeFriest has the sort of mind that could have created rockets and renewable energy and other inventions requiring great genius. His family reminisces in the film about the science experiments he was always performing as a kid, the way he liked to take apart clocks and put them back together. His ex-Marine father taught him survival skills and mechanical know-how and when he passed away, when Mark was 19, he knew his father would want him to have his tools. Not aware of the nuances surrounding the property of a deceased person, Mark was sentenced to 4 years for simply taking something he assumed already belonged to him.
But Mark DeFriest is the sort of man whose brain—whether it’s due to mental illness or possible head trauma at a young age—literally rejects the idea of incarceration and within a month he had attempted his first escape after a prison bible study. He was quickly captured, but he made 18 more escape attempts over the years with countless confiscations of forged keys, zip guns, and other homemade escape items. With each new infraction his sentence has added up on itself to the point that DeFriest has spent over 30 years in a variety of jails, most of that time spent in solitary confinement. In the early years of his jail time several psychologists were asked to assess his mental state, determining whether Mark deserved to remain in prison or be given medical treatment instead. One of those doctors, Robert Berland, was the doctor who issued the damning diagnosis that Mark, while perhaps pathological, was not mentally unstable. This verdict is what kept Mark in the system and the film’s focus is on this same doctor’s regret at his decision as a young doctor and his attempts, along with Mark’s long time lawyer and second wife, to appeal to the parole commission for Mark to be given a chance at parole.
Director Gabriel London has spent over a decade following Mark’s story and the struggles his advocates have encountered in trying to find him a glimmer of hope. The film is intriguing and all those contributing to telling his story — his family, ex-wife, the ex-warden of the scandal-filled Florida State Prison, his lawyer, and Mark himself — paint the picture of a man who was thrown heavy punches in life and whose only instinctual (and mental) response was to swing back. The film is interspersed with Mark’s tales of his various escape attempts and the horrors he’s experienced in prison, all shown in animated form and narrated by Scoot McNairy. This format, while it serves to add humor to his antics, also brings disturbing depth to his more appalling experiences. The film is clearly condemning the justice system, especially Florida’s part in it, but it also excellently explores the various ways time changes all of us, whether it be Dr. Berland and his misdiagnosis, or Mark and the debilitating effects of a life spent in solitary and his basic human rights stripped clean away from him. As the ex-warden states in the film, prison is a punishment not where you go to receive punishment, and this film gives great insight into just how much that ideal has not been upheld.
The Mind of Mark DeFriest releases in theaters March 6 and on Showtime March 19.