Mr. Casson, I hereby sentence you to life in prison with the possibility of parole. You understand sir, that the key word here is ‘possibility’ and that you may never leave prison; in fact, you may die there. Do you understand the sentence that I’m imposing on you today?”
These were the words that 21-year-old Mark Casson heard in the courtroom on a cold day in March 1989.
“I liked violent things,” Casson admits.
While serving as a linguist with U.S. Army Intelligence, Casson often engaged in underground fighting at a warehouse in San Jose, Calif. Committing murder was just the next step on his violent path.
One day, his best friend told him that his wife had committed adultery and he wanted revenge. Casson agreed to be the hit man.
A Twist of Providence
At 21, Casson had weathered a few bruises. Although he began life in church, at age 7 Casson lost his father; his mom got angry with God and never went back. Casson grew into a teenage punk rocker and traded in Catholicism for a religion of lawlessness.
“I’m what you get when you take anarchy to its natural conclusion: You end up dead or in prison,” he says.
It could have gone either way, but through God’s mercy he got the latter.
The night Casson made plans to kill was the same night that police officer Norma Jean Sailor decided to patrol a different street to check up on her daughter, who was sick. She and her partner noticed a car parked along a dark side of the road and turned on their headlights. Casson was caught in the act.
“I jumped out of the car,” Casson remembers. “My first thought was to kill the officer and take off.” He didn’t realize there were two of them. He was outnumbered and forced to surrender. Ten more seconds, and his victim would have been dead.
A Severe Mercy
That night in September 1988 was Casson’s first inkling that something — or Someone — was out there orchestrating the events of his life.
“The only reason I’m not on death row is that God intervened.”
He arrived at the Monterey County Jail in Salinas, Calif., angry at God and just about everyone else. After being locked up for about four months, he earned a spot in “the hole” — an isolated room with rubber walls — for assaulting another inmate who tried to share a Scripture passage with him. But the guard on duty knew him and had mercy, reassigning him to the “God pod” — a section of the jail occupied by Christians. “It was like throwing the lion into Daniel’s den,” he describes.
But Providence was at work again.
One Thursday night, Casson needed to make a phone call, but the only way he could get out of his cell was to attend a Bible study, led by a man from The Gideons International.
The message was from John 1:27, where John the Baptist says of Christ: He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. Casson, who had been a shoe salesman in high school, leaned in to hear more. The speaker went on to talk about the sins of hatred and murder. Was he talking about me? Casson wondered. Something in Casson’s calloused heart began to soften.
“By the time he was done, I was a Christian,” he says.
For the next three days, he closed himself in his cell and read through the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs six times. Proverbs 3:5-6 was the passage that stuck with him: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Two days later, his trial had come up, and he was facing, at best, a life sentence plus 14 years; at worst, the death penalty. His lawyer advised him to plead not guilty. But the new man inside him knew what he had to do.
The courtroom was packed. This was a national case; everyone had shown up to see a spectacular trial. But when Casson pled guilty, an eerie silence fell upon the room.
Perhaps moved by the man’s honesty, the district attorney dropped three of Casson’s four charges, and he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Despite the sentence’s severity, Casson felt as if he had escaped death.
Casson spent his 22nd birthday at the California State Prison in Corcoran. Strangely, it was the perfect place for a new Christian to grow. The prison chaplain came from a Reformed background and cared deeply for the doctrines of grace. Through the influence of this chaplain and others, Casson was fed a steady diet of Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, and Arthur Pink. Through studying Scripture and the teachings of these theologians, Casson began to experience a new paradigm in understanding his imprisonment.
“The basic tenet of Reformed theology is that we’re all on death row. Then our cell doors are opened, and we’re free because Christ was executed in our stead. When you’re in your cell, you can’t get out. The realities of incarceration help you realize that you have to have someone else do it for you. Reformed theology helps you understand that you’re in a helpless condition and strips away the pride that comes with the ‘help yourself’ theology.”
Through this realization, Casson found himself experiencing a freedom he had never known before his incarceration. “I was [freer] than I had ever been in the first 21 years of my life.”
After four years at Corcoran, he was transferred to the prison in Soledad. Although he didn’t find the same depth of theological teaching there, he continued to remain in touch with a Reformed church he had connected with at Corcoran. He was admitted to church membership remotely, and, for the next 11 years, corresponded with the leaders and other members by mail. This became his discipleship.
During this time, one of Casson’s daily prayers was for a wife. He even prayed that God would introduce him to his wife before he got out of prison. Twelve years into his sentence — six years after he began praying that prayer — he received a letter from a friend who had been released, had married, and wanted to introduce him to a friend of his wife’s.
On Nov. 30, 2001, Casson penned his first letter to Raylene. Although initially reluctant to communicate with someone in prison, Raylene wrote back.
“I had prayed for a godly man,” says Raylene. “After I got that first letter, I figured he was probably the man God had for me.”
“By January, I had fallen in love with her and vice versa,” Casson admits.
In April, she came for a visit, and they met for the first time. They continued writing, not knowing if Casson would ever be released. In 2002, he was denied parole for the fifth time.
“At [that] time, less than one-half of one percent [of California inmates] were found suitable for parole,” Casson explains.
The following year, seven of eight men who were considered for parole were denied. Casson was the only one who wasn’t.
Fifteen and a half years after going to prison, Casson learned that he was going home.
Back to Prison
Ten days after his release from prison on Feb. 19, 2004, Casson attended a Sunday service at Sierra View Presbyterian, a PCA congregation in Fresno, where he had been paroled. Later that day, pastor Brian Peterson received a phone call from Casson, explaining that he was an ex-prisoner and asking if his presence at the church would cause a problem.
“If your story is a problem with anyone in our church, then that would be my last Sunday,” ….
Casson was immediately embraced into the Sierra View community, a church that became a family for him during the whirlwind of circumstances that followed. He was even elected to be a ruling elder a few years later.
Shortly after he got out, Casson got a job working at a printing company at http://www.exposeyourselfusa.com/signs/miami-beach-signs/, stated by a friend he had known in prison. On May 28, 2004, Casson and Raylene were married. And in November of that year, he went back to prison, this time as a volunteer with Fresno’s parole department.
“I was the first person [in California] to go back into prison to do ministry, while still on parole.”
In 2006, Casson was asked to serve on the board of Metanoia Prison Ministries, a young organization started by Casson’s friend Dion Marshall (also an ex-prisoner) and Marshall’s wife, Shelly. Three years later, Casson arrived at the PCA’s 39th General Assembly in Orlando, Fla., as a representative for Metanoia. At the time, the denomination had no official affiliations with prison outreach. Not long afterward, Metanoia was invited to join Mission to North America as the PCA’s prison-ministry arm.
Whatever You Did for One of the Least
In November 2009, Casson accepted the position of director of prison ministry with MNA and four months later left his printing company job to head Metanoia full time. Metanoia matches prisoners with a volunteer from a Reformed church who will grade the prisoner’s lessons and write encouraging letters to him or her, developing a life-on-life relationship. “The encouraging letter is where the discipleship begins,” Casson explains. “The courses are a vehicle for real-life discipleship.”
The ministry currently has 400 volunteers from more than 90 churches writing to a total of 600 prisoners across the country. A third of their pen pals are retirees, many of whom are elderly members of churches who can’t leave their homes but can write a letter.
In summer 2012, Metanoia expanded its in-person ministry when Walker State Prison approached the ministry with a request for 200 men to mentor prisoners. Casson, who had recently moved his family to Chattanooga, Tenn., jumped at the opportunity. He recruited 50 men from First Presbyterian Church and several other PCA and Reformed churches in Chattanooga and northwest Georgia. Every other week, the mentors travel up to an hour to meet with their mentees; they spend two hours each visit praying with and for them, encouraging them, and helping them prepare for release by talking through topics such as biblical parenting and budgeting.
The next focus for Metanoia: reintegration. Casson hopes that during the next few years the ministry will equip churches to welcome ex-prisoners and help them get back on their feet.
“Church is the most important thing [for the success of an ex-prisoner],” he explains, “over and above getting a job.”
Casson’s long-term dream is to have one person in every PCA church involved in Metanoia. Sadly, he says he often sees that some of the most doctrinally sound churches are those least involved in ministering to prisoners.
“By and large, the churches that have the truth in its purest form don’t seem to have the ministry . . . but Jesus separates the goats from the sheep based not on what you know, but on what you did with what you know.”
For those who do take seriously Jesus’ instruction to “welcome the prisoner,” a deeper understanding of the Gospel is bound to follow, both for the welcomer as well as the welcomed.
“It’s wonderful to have someone out here not judging you based on what you did but based on what Christ did and what He’s continuing to do in your life,” says Casson.
Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis. She has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, BreakPoint Radio, The Indianapolis Star, The Washington Times, and World magazine.