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DeFriest: Mental Illness Behind Bars

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Mark DeFriest - a.k.a. "The Houdini of Florida", "Wendy the Punk" and "Wizard" -- has played many roles in order to survive the worst that American prison life has to offer. Yet at the beginning of his incarceration, it was not even clear whether he belonged in prison at all.

In the early 1980s, 5 of 6 court appointed psychiatrists agreed that Mark was incompetent to be sentenced -- citing symptoms of schizophrenia and even autism -- so he was sent to a mental hospital. Mark's future hinged on his escape from that hospital, an event that changed the course of his life and launched him on a path of punishment instead of treatment. Today, almost 30 years later, Mark is one of 200,000 mentally ill prisoners behind bars in America. Like many of them, Mark has never received treatment, has rarely been medicated and is consistently punished for his symptoms.

As a filmmaker and now someone who counts himself a friend to Mark DeFriest, I have been following his story for almost 8 years, along the way uncovering the twisted path that led to the windowless solitary cell where he resides today. I learned of Mark in 2001 while researching a documentary that accompanied the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape Prison Rape in America. Back then, my film on Rodney Hulin - who had been raped repeatedly and eventually committed suicide in Texas prison - came to stand for the estimated 20% of US prisoners subjected to that kind of abuse. Mark's story is not so different from Rodney's, as Mark too was a victim of rape and abuse. But Mark's case is more complicated owing to his own role in ostracizing his captors. Originally sent to prison for a small property crime, Mark's penchant for Cool Hand Luke style rebellion became legendary within the Florida Department of Corrections and garnered him staggeringly long and brutal sentences despite the protests of court appointed psychiatrists.

Over the years, Mark has evidenced an almost pathological need to outsmart his captors. In the 80s, he used his mechanical gift to become Florida's greatest escape artist, "Houdini." But the system didn't appreciate his talents nor the mania and paranoia that drove him on. After seven escapes, mentally competent or incompetent, it didn't matter: jail guards tortured him in retaliation. Court transcripts reveal that after weeks of abuse following his final jailbreak, Mark pled guilty to a life sentence just to get a warm bed and a promised visit with his wife.

Sentenced to Florida State Prison for 3 years to Life and 45 years, respectively, officials saw fit to build him a windowless, "escape-proof" cell. Then to add insult to injury, they allowed him to be repeatedly gang raped. Like Rodney Hulin, Mark couldn't live with the shame of rape, but instead of suicide he made a Faustian bargain to survive, dissociating from his own identity to take on the role of "Wendy", a flamboyant transvestite who took the pain of abuse and made it pleasure. In so doing, Wendy bought Mark yet another escape. And it's that endless cycle of escape and capture that has continued on in one form or another for 28 years, time passing, one day to the next, during excruciatingly long stays in the most draconian conditions American prisons have to offer: supermax units offering 23/7 lockdown in a box.

A Critical Moment

Today, the question begs: should Mark still be in prison? The fact is he never had a jury trial. He pled guilty every time he was caught, a sign many doctors took of incompetence. As prisoners who committed far worse crimes have been freed, Mark's cyclical mental breakdowns have cost him all his 'gain time' towards parole. His present fate is to serve his entire sentence, release date December 18, 2035...

Mark's only hope is a clemency petition that his elderly wife and a small town lawyer are pursuing on his behalf. In the next few months, they will introduce new evidence to the Florida Parole Commission relating to Mark's mental competence, in the hope that the commission will grant them an audience with Governor Crist. As we follow their efforts to be heard - through a documentary and accompanying serialized blog - the story will become a de facto courtroom where the facts of Mark's case are finally laid out for an audience to hear.

With that knowledge, Mark's fate, along with that of thousands of other mentally ill inmates, will be in our hands.