Three Decades in Solitary Confinement: America's Greatest Living Prison Escape Artist

Eleven years ago, I set out on an adventure to tell the story of Mark DeFriest, an infamous and brilliant prison escape artist who had earned the title "Houdini of Florida" and has spent 27 of the last 32 years in prison for his escapes and disciplinary infractions.
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Few Americans truly understand the experience of solitary confinement, but on any given day there are 80,000 men, women and even children living it. Solitary cells are not unlike "black sites" used by the U.S. military -- far from public view, with almost no oversight and few opportunities for visitation by lawyers, journalists or family members. Yet it costs taxpayers an estimated $75,000 a year for every prisoner in solitary, compared to $25,000 for other prisoners, despite mounting evidence that solitary confinement does nothing to curb violence in prison or remediate prisoners who are locked up there, sometimes for decades at a time. In fact, a growing chorus of psychological studies is confirming what prison rights advocates have been saying all along -- solitary confinement is torture. But what can the average American do to stop it if so little is known?

Eleven years ago, I set out on an improbable filmmaking adventure. I wanted to tell the story of Mark DeFriest, an infamous and brilliant prison escape artist who had earned the title "Houdini of Florida" and has spent 27 of the last 32 years in prison for his escapes and disciplinary infractions. His original crime? He was accused by his stepmother and then convicted of stealing tools willed to him by his father. As a 19-year-old kid, Mark was thrown into the Florida prison system, and soon thereafter raped by fellow inmates -- multiple times.

A mechanical genius, Mark was able to create master keys and contraband radios in prison from scratch. Over the course of seven dramatic escapes, five of six court-appointed psychologists deemed Mark to be mentally incompetent to be sentenced. The last, Dr. Robert Berland, gave an opinion that Mark was faking mental illness. On this basis, after being maced and tortured in a solitary cell over the course of 11 days, Mark was allowed to accept a plea bargain that came with a life sentence. In testimony years later, DeFriest stated that "if the lawyer had told me to plead guilty to a death sentence, I would have said, 'Yeah, let's go. I want to leave.'" Mark DeFriest has spent most of his life in a windowless solitary confinement cell, spending more than a decade in a custom cell above Florida's electric chair where he could smell burning flesh after each execution.

In the film, his incredible escapes will be brought to life, and the nightmarish misery of Florida State Prison's X-Wing will take shape as the sci-fi world that Mark describes in his letters, writings and interviews. We are using animation sequences to see the prison world as Mark DeFriest saw it, and experience the harrowing incidents detailed in thousands of pages of prison and court records of his case. Through animation, we are conjuring Mark's inner world: a man of prodigious mechanical intelligence does not see locks and doors as we do, and the 6x9 prison cell he inhabits for so long is both a torturous deprivation chamber and a rich world where manic plans are hatched to survive, even thrive.

Amy Fettig, the director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, believes that when most people learn about the realities of solitary confinement, "they recognize that solitary is an extreme and inhumane form of punishment that is not evidence-based, wastes taxpayer money and jeopardizes public safety." It wouldn't be the first time that public opinion turns against solitary confinement. In the late 19th century, the practice was believed to make prisoners more insane and abolished, only to be brought back by "tough on crime" politicians in the 1980s and '90s.

Mark DeFriest may never be go free, but there is a chance that if his story is released -- if it can find its way out of the dark recesses of his cell into the world -- then we might be able to collectively start imagining the experience of solitary confinement. Only then will we be able to have a rational, informed debate about whether or not subjecting 80,000 Americans to an experience akin to psychological torture is good policy; whether or not Mark DeFriest should still be in prison.

As we enter the final stretch, we are building a community of support around the film and raising finishing funds for animation on Kickstarter through Christmas Day. Let's shine some light on solitary, and correct this blatant injustice in our prison system once and for all.

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