Mark DeFriest is an American prison legend, a notorious escape artist who has spent 33 years behind bars, with little light, hope or human contact.
The film is the exploration of Mark DeFriest’s life and mind, both the facts of the case and the hyper world of his design, as seen in animations. Interweaving the animated past of Mark’s case with the parole narrative, the film becomes a de facto courtroom where the facts of Mark’s case are finally laid out. Mark DeFriest attempted 13 escapes and got out seven times, turning his original four-year sentence into Life. The original crime that sent him to prison: stealing his own father’s tools. So how did a low-level criminal end up looking at life in prison?
Sitting in his office with a dusty file, Mark’s former lawyer, John Middleton, explains that at the beginning of Mark’s incarceration, people in the system disagreed about whether he belonged in prison at all. In the early 1980s, 5 of 6 court appointed psychiatrists testified that Mark was incompetent to be sentenced – citing symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – so he is sent to the Florida State Hospital for treatment. But when Mark makes a zipgun in woodshop class and escapes from there, a single doctor – the director of the Forensic Unit, Dr. Berland – testifies in court that Mark was faking mental illness. That opinion, coupled with torturous conditions in pre-trial detention in Bay County Jail, clears the way for Mark to plead guilty to a life sentence. He lands on a path of punishment instead of treatment that lasts through today.
Mark’s surreal odyssey from jails to mental hospitals to some of America’s toughest maximum security prison units – punctuated by amazing escapes, brutal punishment and inventive ways of populating his isolation – is brought to life in animations based on twenty years of his prison letters and legal documents, coupled with the voices of people on the outside that speak to Mark’s character and plight. The spine of the story is a parallel narrative that takes place in two time periods following Mark’s dramatic rise and fall as the Houdini of Florida in the early 1980s and the modern day parole effort to set him free.
As the parole hearing dates gets closer, we follow an unlikely team of supporters as they delve into Mark’s past to make a convincing case. Their sympathy for Mark mixes with the facts of the case as reported by officials and shown in animations: Mark has been an incorrigible disciplinary problem as evidenced by his escapes and endless disciplinary reports (DRs), including for repeatedly answering Master Count by saying his names was James Bond 007. Yet as Middleton prepares his argument, he points out that Mark’s crimes are comparatively small for someone who has spent 30 years behind bars, and his behavior is likely related to mental illness.
Does Mark deserve consideration for his mental health history or is he ultimately culpable, and therefore unworthy of parole? For the conservative commission, Middleton believes that as long as Mark DeFriest misbehaves, no matter the reason, they will keep him in prison. As the parole effort builds momentum, Mark begins to hope. He goes a record 15 months without a DR.
The mirrored façade of the corporate-style headquarters of the Florida Department of Corrections belies its importance. Inside a gallery sparsely populated with Mark’s supporters, the three Parole Commissioners file silently past. Today they must decide whether Mark deserves additional time on his sentence or a break that would allow him a chance to parole in this lifetime. The odds are stacked against Mark, but the new evidence is strong. Will the Parole Commission show mercy to the legendary escape artist and troublemaker?