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Legal escape for Florida’s ‘Prison Houdini’ could be blocked

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A man known as a “prison Houdini” for a series of escapes might have his first legal exit thwarted after Florida’s parole commission voted Thursday to reconsider his upcoming release in a case that began 36 years ago when the then-teenager was convicted of stealing the very tools his father left him in a will.

If parole is rescinded, Mark DeFriest, 55, faces the possibility of dying in prison in a case his advocates say is a prime example of the need to change the way prison systems handle inmates with mental health issues.

“We have for many, many years been warehousing the mentally ill and they (prisons) have become the de facto asylums of our nation and they are ill-suited to do that,” Gabriel London, a filmmaker who has documented DeFriest’s case, told the parole board during a hearing in Jacksonville. “We should find a way to build something better than a deeper, darker cell for him to die in.”

Recent disciplinary problems in an Oregon prison, including arson, destroying state property and possession of contraband, are causing the parole commission to rethink the case. London said DeFriest is acting out of frustration because a mix-up in communication placed him in a maximum- security prison where guards taunted him that he would never get out.

DeFriest was charged with burglary for taking tools his father left him before the will could be executed. That turned into a virtual life sentence after seven successful escapes in 13 attempts and charges related to the breakouts. It didn’t help that he also had nearly 400 disciplinary reports.

London and DeFriest lawyer John Middleton say he is a high-functioning autistic whose mental health made him unable to handle prison life.

He was scheduled for a 2085 release until December 2014, when the commission moved up his release date after a stretch of good behavior and recognition of his mental health issues. DeFriest, who was been held out-of-state since 1999 after testifying against guards who beat a Florida prisoner to death, was transferred from New Mexico to an Oregon prison so he could be closer to his wife while entering pre-release programs.

But the Oregon Department of Corrections put him in a maximum-security prison and never placed him in the pre-release programs ordered by the Florida commission. In March, the commission extended his prison stay another six months so he could participate in the programs.

DeFriest didn’t understand what was happening and was convinced he wouldn’t get out, London said. That triggered paranoia, mania and fear.

“He has reacted,” London told the commission. “So here we go again.”

“Mark has given up. He is truly a creature consumed by this hellacious prison world we’ve built, and as long as it persists, there is no way out. He tried elevating himself from the muck, but it was never enough,” London said.

DeFriest is now in solitary confinement and the Oregon prison won’t let him make or accept phone calls and he can’t receive visitors, London said in a phone interview after the hearing. London did receive two recent letters from DeFriest indicating he’s convinced he’ll never see freedom.

“In both of his letters he has just completely given up,” London said. “He literally said, ‘Let it go.'”

The parole commission didn’t immediately announce a date for DeFriest’s next hearing.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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