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Should Mark DeFriest Go Free?

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 29/10/2015 Gabriel London

Four more years in prison. Even that seemed impossible this time last year. Back then, after decades behind bars and an infamous record of prison escapes, Mark DeFriest's parole date was 2085. But audiences that saw the film I made about his life, The Mind of Mark DeFriest, were telling me he deserved better. I was in the middle of a "Court of Public Opinion" tour, screening the documentary wherever I could in the lead up to his next parole hearing. At each screening, we would pass around a ballot box and ask audiences to vote on whether Mark should be paroled or not. Mark's not an easy character -- he laughs inappropriately, repeats jokes, was a troublemaker extraordinaire -- but audiences were nearly unanimous in raising their voices for him. They voted overwhelmingly that he should be paroled, and went further than that: writing letters and emails to the Florida Parole Commission to encourage mercy at the upcoming hearing. And that's just what happened: at a hearing last December, the Commission reduced Mark's parole date 70 years in an instant. After 35 years in prison, Florida is due to release Mark from their custody on Jan 30, 2016.
But he will not walk to freedom. Why? He owes four years to California, because in the early 2000s, after being transferred out of Florida, he was caught in prison with two joints and a handcuff key. He got four years for "prison contraband," and his California sentences were set to be served consecutively not concurrently. At this rate, come January, Mark will be pulled back into the overcrowded California prison system to serve four years for two joints and a handcuff key.
Should he go free?
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Mark has been in prison since he was 19, and is now 55. That's like 75 in prison years, where health care and nutrition are a farce. He is often sick and vulnerable to illness and attack. Is he dangerous? No, Mark has never been convicted of a violent crime, rather he has an undiagnosed mental condition -- well documented since childhood and a major theme of my film -- that is likely an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Over the last five or so years, through direct intervention, Mark's supporters were able to help him learn coping mechanisms that allowed him to completely eliminate disciplinary reports and bad behavior. He has taken a terrible prison record -- including 27 years in solitary confinement -- and cleaned it up. Last Fall, Florida approved a detailed parole plan for Mark that would include wraparound care and mental health treatment. Meanwhile, Mark's wife, Bonnie, who is 85, stands ready to receive him home. She is pretty impatient too, and has launched a petition.
Of course, the lives of prisoners, and families with loved ones in prison, are complicated by time clocks that respect no real world time, no redemption calendar, but only sentences that have been handed down; often overly harsh, arbitrary sentences that even law enforcement officials are calling to be reformed. Mark has served 35 years for nonviolent offenses and Florida saw fit to parole him.
Now, what about California?
Mark has gone four-plus years without a disciplinary report, and 20-plus years since an escape. He wants to walk out the front gate and expects no hand outs. For that to happen before January 30th, California would simply need to say they are passing on the "detainer" they have on Mark's file, thereby triggering a parole plan that has been set up for Mark out of state. But that won't happen without people deciding to get involved.
I think Mark has earned his freedom, but don't listen to me. I invite audiences to watch The Mind of Mark DeFriest -- at, on Showtime on Demand or at an upcoming screening -- and judge for themselves. Yes, I knew Mark's story was a great one for a film, but I told this story knowing that audiences could decide what the ending would be in real life. That's happening...
You can be the jury he never had.
PS. When Mark was getting clean in prison people kept asking him "Whatcha need?". He started answering: Rubber Duckies. And this is what he ended up with: a collection of contraband duckies that were sent home to his wife.
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