TALLAHASSEE — A man known as the "prison Houdini" for his numerous escapes was given a path to freedom Thursday, 36 years after being convicted of stealing mechanic tools his father bequeathed to him.
Florida's parole board voted 2-1 to set a July 26 release date, choosing to get Mark DeFriest help for mental health issues and prepare him for the world outside of prison rather than punish him for acting out after a series of recent missteps left him in solitary confinement in an Oregon prison.
"He's not a murderer, he's not a rapist, he doesn't have a history of violence," Florida Commission on Offender Review Chairwoman Melinda Coonrod said Wednesday during debate that set up Thursday's vote. "He's in the worst situation that he has been in for a long time. The system has failed him and we put him there."
The decision means DeFriest, 55, can now be transferred to a California prison, where he still has to complete a two-year sentence for having drugs while incarcerated there. California has assured the parole board he will get the treatment and programs it hoped he would get when it sent him to Oregon in 2014.
DeFriest is described as an autistic savant — an incredibly intelligent man who couldn't handle the prison system because of his mental health issues. He was originally sentenced to four years on a burglary conviction for taking his father's tools before his will could be executed. That turned into a virtual life sentence after seven escapes and 13 attempts, along with related charges after the breakouts. It didn't help that he also had nearly 400 disciplinary reports, called DRs for short.
In 2014, the commission knocked 70 years off his parole date after he went more than two years without any disciplinary issues. DeFriest, who was been held out-of-state after testifying against guards who beat a Florida prisoner to death in 1999, 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. In March, the commission extended his prison stay to Aug. 23 so he could participate in the programs. Instead, a frustrated DeFriest continued to act out and Oregon kept him in solitary confinement.
Gabriel London, a filmmaker who made a documentary on DeFriest and an advocate for his release, told the commission that DeFriest is in horrible conditions in Oregon.
"He has health issues, he's not being showered regularly, he says he smells like a goat, he has no toothbrush, he hasn't brushed his teeth, he hasn't had medication," London said. "His foot is going numb and he thinks it's gangrene. We are dealing with somebody who is being treated in the worst way possible."
The commission originally set this week's hearing to consider rescinding DeFriest's Aug. 23 parole date because of the disciplinary issues, which included arson and marijuana use. Commissioner Richard Davison said DeFriest shouldn't be released.
But the chairwoman and Commissioner Judith Wolson agreed the recent problems were directly related to his mental illnesses and a reaction to a bad situation. They said it would be best to get DeFriest out of Oregon.
"I look at these DRs differently than I look at other inmates. I think we have to, otherwise we're punishing people for their mental illness," said Coonrod.
Among conditions of his parole are not getting in trouble in the California prison, transitioning to a group home after his release, receiving mental health treatment, a temporary curfew and reporting to a parole officer.
His lawyer, John Middleton, planned to speak to him Thursday afternoon, but said he didn't expect him to fully understand his situation. Paranoia makes it hard for him to believe that he'll be treated fairly in a new prison.
"He's going to think it's a trap," he said. "This Oregon adventure, it was supposed to be a positive transition for him. It turned into a nightmare."