By Jordan Blumetti
Many questions were troubling the explorer, but at the sight of the prisoner he asked only: “Does he know his sentence?” “No,” said the officer, eager to get on with his exposition, but the explorer interrupted him: “He doesn't know the sentence that has been passed on him?” “No,” said the officer again, pausing a moment as if to let the explorer elaborate his questions, and then said: “There would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.”
— Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”
The date is February 1, 2019. Four days until Mark DeFriest is released from prison, where he has spent 39 years of his life — 27 of them in solitary confinement—without having ever committed a violent crime.
He jokes about this being the hardest time he’s ever served: freedom finally whittled down to the same calendar year in which he finds himself, a single digit away.
DeFriest’s odyssey, as it’s been called, began in Florida, but for the last two years, he has been in California’s Kern Valley State Prison, near Bakersfield. Hundreds of supporters send him letters to lift his spirits or put a few bucks in his canteen. He sends back paper airplanes with military lingo scratched in pencil on the wing. He also draws pictures, intricately illustrated gothic scenes: skulls and sorcerers, funnels of ghoulish faces — his map of hell. He signs them “Wizard,” his nom de plume. He is uncommonly gifted with his hands.
Mark DeFriest was born in 1960 in the vestigial tobacco fields of Gadsden County, where the Chattahoochee meets the Apalachicola. He exhibited signs of what society now calls — reverentially and sympathetically — a prodigy. He was a boy-genius, a savant, always wearing a distant stare and inscrutable smile. He was doing garage chemistry and mechanical engineering as a tween. He could repair anything.
At 19, he was married and left Florida, heading west with his young bride and his tools, fixing broken-down cars on Interstate 40 along the way. When his father died unexpectedly, DeFriest returned home. A set of his father’s tools had been willed to him, but Mark picked them up before the will had been probated. His stepmother (the bad kind) called the cops. Paranoid, Mark bolted out the back door, squad cars trailing him, thinking a vast government conspiracy was afoot. He was arrested and sentenced to four years in county jail. He thought, Why would I stay for four years when I could get out now? It was easy for him to escape. And just as easy, the years on his sentence began to multiply.
Out of 13 attempts, DeFriest escaped seven times. That’s a batting average of .538 — Cooperstown numbers in this game of inconceivable failure. He broke wrist and leg restraints and straitjackets. He scaled razor wire, sawed through iron bars, hot-wired cars, made “zip guns” out of toothpaste tubes. He memorized key patterns and replicated dozens out of scrap metal. He could make a key to fit any lock in America.
The newspapers called him the Houdini of Florida. His wife left him because he wouldn't stop escaping from prison. But he couldn't. Crime and punishment were too abstract. The guards put him in isolation: 11 days naked in the dark, like Abu Ghraib, not Leon County. It only hardened the delusions of war from which he suffered. Four psychiatrists said he was unfit to stand trial, but the fifth said he was faking. At 20 years old, he was cleared to plead guilty to a life sentence for his repeated escape attempts and a dismal disciplinary report. He was off to the big house: Florida State Prison in Raiford.
Land in Raiford is flat and brown and green and cheap. It’s Florida’s metonym for prison, the state’s original prison city. As the Skynyrd ballad goes: “Oh Jesus save my soul / I can’t go back down to Raiford / I can’t take that anymore.” In 1913, abandoned farmland was converted into a prison farm. More prisons came later after the state did away with convict leasing. The prisons spilled into a neighboring county and a nearby city — either you worked in the prison, or you were imprisoned — prisons within prisons, as I have written here before, like matryoshka dolls.
And it’s said there’s nothing correctional officers hate worse than jailbreaks.
Under an expansive and impassive blue sky, behind acres of electrified razor wire, firing lines, fencing, watchtowers, mirthless cement compounds, at the absolute pinnacle of the prison colony, sat Mark DeFriest, like a comic book supervillain. One floor above the execution chamber with Raiford’s three-legged electric chair, “Old Sparky.” Raiford inmates fabricated Sparky; the house lights would dim as its power draw hit 2,000 volts. This was the notorious “X Wing,” renamed often to throw off the media but always known in prison-speak as hell on earth. The guards hated how DeFriest made them feel dumb. They beat him regularly, made up disciplinary reports, or did nothing when he was gang raped. He became the prison wife of a death-row inmate out of necessity. He wore rouge makeup and called himself Wendy the Punk. On good nights, he would drink homemade liquor and listen to the classic rock station on a portable radio he built; he called it the Buttman (á la Walkman) because it was small enough for easy basement storage in a pinch. In photos from this period, his face is sunken, colored only by the concentric bruising from fights with inmates, guards, or himself. A man beset by the shadow of his parallel life, the cheap drugstore negatives and newsprint like transmissions from a netherworld. One thinks of Dante, of the sorcerers with their heads twisted around their necks and time moving backward interminably. DeFriest hadn’t seen daylight in years.
Mark was released on February 5, 2019. Gabriel London, a documentary filmmaker, and friend for almost 20 years was waiting for him at the entrance to Kern Valley State Prison. Mark had to be moved to the West Coast after he testified against the “goon squad” of prison guards who beat death-row inmate Frank Valdes to death in 1999. That was around the time he and the filmmaker first met. DeFriest shuffled through a string of prisons: Alabama, New Mexico, eventually landing in Oregon, where he was misclassified and thrown back into solitary confinement. London has followed along the way. In 2014, he released his documentary “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest.”
In the film, London and Mark’s longtime attorney, John Middleton, bring back Dr. Robert Berland — the psychiatrist who in 1981 said Mark was faking and thus doomed him to life in prison — to give Berland a chance to reevaluate. In one scene, Mark is escorted into a small cinder block office where a jittery Berland has his testing equipment arranged. Mark’s transition lenses slowly adjust to the daylight, his speech sluggish and garbled. He gums the inside of his cheek like a sad teenager in the principal’s office. By this point, he seems convinced of his own guilt, or at least his fate: “the condemned man looked so like a submissive dog that one might have thought he could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.”
Berland quietly does his work — asking questions, moving instruments, no doubt quivering under his own towering guilt.
“Everything could have been different,” he says.
“Well, it was nice to see you again, Dr. Berland!” Mark says, loudly gauche and in a way that seems to represent his illness in full before he is taken back to his cell.
London and Middleton took Mark’s psychiatric results back to Florida and showed it to the parole board, along with the documentary. They continued to attend Mark’s parole hearings. In 2016, the board erased 70 years from Mark’s sentence and issued a tentative release date.
London and DeFriest left prison and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway toward Oregon, at one point stopping so Mark could dive into the ocean — 40 years and 3,000 miles from the tepid Gulf of Mexico and into the freezing Pacific. DeFriest played with new electronic devices; he already knew how they all worked. They visited DeFriest’s second wife, Bonnie DeFriest, whom he met as a pen pal 25 years ago. Time was short because he had only 48 hours before being committed to another institution for one year of mandatory psychiatric and drug counseling — a condition of his parole. And so DeFriest collected a handful of leaves and brought them to his face and smelled them and rubbed them over his skin. They drove him to IHOP, where he ate a full plate of bacon, a club sandwich, and a short stack with butter and syrup.
On February 7, London dropped DeFriest off in Corvallis, Oregon, at Community Outreach, a catch-all “transition home” for the infirm, homeless, drug-addicted, mentally ill, or parole-bound. Four days later, DeFriest had what was called a manic episode. A urine test showed renal failure and traces of methamphetamine. The next day, he was thrown out of the facility and, back in Florida, the parole revocation process had begun.
Once again, his team put forth an appeal for leniency. They plead with both Florida and California not to throw him back in jail, but provide the appropriate treatment and care for his condition, which now included a severe drug addiction, developed while incarcerated — one enduring escape attempt.
As of this writing, that appeal has been denied. The State of Florida issued an arrest warrant and arranged for Mark to be transported back home where he will be incarcerated, most likely for the rest of his life. All the paperwork done very neatly and unceremoniously.
On February 15, Gabriel London and Bonnie DeFriest dropped Mark off at the San Joaquin County probation office. He was photographed in the parking lot a few moments before turning himself in, hugging Bonnie, who buries her head in his chest. Mark isn’t crying but stares into the camera, a placid old man now, with a knowing look in his eyes and the same half-smile on his lips.