Why I believe US prisons are evil and need to be abolished and/or radically reconsidered

I am increasingly convinced that a major point of focus for Christians who believe in peace and nonviolence should be the end of the prison system as we know it today in America.

As an attorney and a minister I have had the experience of visiting many prisons and jails. A lot of county jails in several states (Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Arkansas and Georgia), but also a few state prisons, military prisons, and even the notorious Supermax Federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

At none of these institutions did I see any positive change happening. A rare few found ways to “subvert the experience” (my favorite was a prisoner who started a study group of Civil Disobedience by Thoreau?), others just did their best to stay sane and get through it, but most it was a brutalizing and disturbing experience. They came away from prison with a profound distrust of all government authority, a hatred of our political system, and often the personal training in how to commit crimes by other inmates. And more than a few came away with physical and mental injuries from their time behind bars.

This is why I don’t believe in prisons.

I understand that there is a very, very small subset of prisoners who are truly dangerous and who must truly be separated from the rest of society, but the rest should not be there. They might need good drug rehab, or counseling or just a good job or a supportive family or church community, but they do not need jail.

And for that 5% – those who are truly dangerous – there is no reason to treat them like animals. Those who are dangerous will not be made less so by further brutalization, but rather by showing them some kindness and mercy.

Right now I’m thinking about a classmate of mine from elementary and middle school in Newcastle, Oklahoma -Jimmy Lokey.

Jimmie L Lokey
Jimmie L Lokey

Jimmy was a troubled kid. He was the only kid in my Middle school who smoked so he got the nickname “Smokey Lokey,” but he wasn’t a bad kid. I remember him as someone who lived in my neighborhood and who wanted to be my friend. I was scared of him though (after he was a “rough kid” who smoked) so I wasn’t very receptive to his overtures of friendship. And then he disappeared and didn’t give him much thought until Senior year of high school when I heard rumors that he had “killed a cab driver in Tulsa and was facing murder charges.”

I didn’t believe it until years later when I searched for his name online and found the whole story. After his time in Newcastle (which I later learned through press coverage of his trial was a horrificly abusive childhood), he had ran away and was caught up in the juvenile justice in several states before having escaped yet again to Tulsa. It was there that he made friends with a much older man. The two of them decided that they would call for a cab driver and then rob the driver to get money to buy drugs. The robbery didn’t go well and the driver was shot and killed in Osage County (in the Tulsa metro). Jimmy and his “friend” were tried for murder and Jimmy took a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. Despite the court knowing about his horrific childhood, Jimmy was given a sentence of life without parole.

And as far as I know, Jimmy’s abusive family were never prosecuted for their crimes again.

Everyone in Newcastle knew Jimmy had a rough home life. It was obvious that things were bad for him, but nothing was ever really done on his behalf, and so he was caught up in the system and again shown only roughness and cruelty. He desperately needed love and kindness but that is not what he received. And then in the end, after a string of bad decisions by him (while still a juvenile I should add — he was certified as an adult for his trial but he commited his crime at age 17), our society decided to throw him away and there he remains.

I hope and pray of course that maybe he has found some real friends in jail and maybe some love too but I’m not holding my breath. He will be turning 40 in a couple of months (see http://docapp065p.doc.state.ok.us/servlet/page?_pageid=394&_dad=portal30&_schema=PORTAL30&doc_num=226958&offender_book_id=118592&imageindex=1 ) and all I can think about is what a waste. His family failed him. Our community in Oklahoma failed him. Our state and nation failed him. Yes, of course, he did a terrible, terrible thing, but would he have done this terrible thing if he had not been abused?

I don’t think so.

He has spent more than half of his life in prison but does it make anything better. I doubt it has done much to improve his life, and it certainly doesn’t bring back

And that is why I don’t believe in prisons. We recycle our metal, plastic and glass, letting those materials find new lives in new products. Why can’t we show the same dignity to our fellow human beings? Why can’t we believe that they could be different?

I’m not a Pollyana. I have met some bad, bad people in my work as an attorney. I know there are some truly dangerous people out there. But I also know that those folks do not become monsters in a vaccuum, and that even those people CAN CHANGE.

And there are plenty of other people who are not dangerous, people who have committed no real crime. People like Chelsea Manning (the US Army whistleblower who leaked materials to Wikileaks), who should be given medals not prison, or the thousands upon thousands in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.

It is for all of these people that I say that it is time to nonviolently tear down the walls of our prisons and set the captives free. Our systems are rotten to the core.

My wife and I do our best to teach our son good values, the most important of them being that “people are the most important thing.” Why won’t our society see this?

When will we wake up to the fact that more than 2.2 MILLION people (more than the population of any one of 16 different states – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_population ) are in prison, the highest prison population in the world and the 2nd highest per capita in the world. We have more people in prison that China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Do these 2.2 million+ people count?

My 39th Birthday

In a few hours I will be turning 39, which happens to also be the same day as my parent’s 40th anniversary (yes, I was born on their first anniversary).

This year I’m a little bummed out because I’m likely going to be stuck at home recovering from a stomach bug but I’m also feeling good about this birthday as it comes in the midst of major changes going on in my life… I am reorganizing my professional and educational life and focusing more on my family life and on my relationship with my wife. These changes are a work in progress and sometimes are difficult but these days is feeling easier and easier.

Two parts of my life right now are especially filled with joy. The first is my experience of being a dad. The last few weeks have been a really a powerful time of growing closer to my step-son, and I’m very excited about all of the adventures he and I will be doing this summer.

The second especially joyful part has been my experience of more fully embracing bicycling as a lifestyle. My BikeforConscience bike tour is off to a good start (59 miles down, 208 to go) and I think I’m seeing more and more every day both how important bicycling is to me, but also how much making it a priority is improving my life.

Life is really good right now. I know I sometimes dwell too much on the negative but this is a day in which I want to celebrate the good stuff.

On a related note, for any friends or family who are thinking about giving me a gift for my birthday, one easy option is to make a donation for the BikeforConscience.org Bike Tour. The first $400 raised will go to pay my expenses for the rest of my riding all of Route 66 in Oklahoma this year, with the rest going to support the important work of the Center for Conscience in Action.

To find out more about this campaign, please go to BikeforConscience.org or click on the GoFundMe button below…

My thoughts on the NLG’s New Food Justice Policy

This is my response to the National Lawyers Guild’s recently released NLG Food Justice Guidelines. I wrote an earlier version of it for some of the NLG email discussion groups but thought it might be helpful to rewrite it a bit and share it more widely.

With all due respect for my comrades who hold to different convictions on these issues, I would argue that two of the planks in this statement contradict themselves in our local context in Oklahoma and for many other parts of the USA.

The two planks in question are:

1. “That all the food served at all of our National Conventions be entirely vegan, free of any animal products such as meat, dairy, including eggs and other animal byproducts;”

2. “Encouraging the National Conventions strive to use locally sourced, organic food when possible and to purchase from businesses owned or run by marginalized communities and which have good labor practices;;”

In the prairie regions of the USA, the most sustainable form of agriculture is raising 100% grass-fed animals, since it enables for food to be produced without plowing the ground (with its resulting issues of erosion), and instead transforming grass (which humans can’t eat thanks to our inability to digest cellulose) into meat. Certainly other forms of agriculture can be done (including growing fruits and veggies, as well as grains) but these other forms of agriculture are fairly seasonal in nature and require tilling the earth which has environmental costs.

A healthy vegan diet by definition is difficult to pull off but is doable. I have several friends locally who are vegan and I know they do well at it. But they can’t eat vegan, healthy and local at the same time for all of the year. My vegan friends probably see this as a trade-off but one that is worthwhile to avoid the abuse of animals.

I believe that the current NLG Food Justice Guidelines is out of touch with local reality. A vegan diet might be both sustainable and local in coastal areas with mild climates, but it can’t be both sustainable and local in our local context. And given this reality, why weren’t the local chapters of the Guild consulted on these guidelines?

And why is veganism now the stated no-compromises position of the Guild at the national level, while “locally sourced, organic food…from businesses owned or run by marginalized communities and which have good labor practices” only an encouraged position?

All of this said… I am very encouraged to see these issues coming to the forefront of discussion in the Guild. How we eat is of critical importance. I’m just not sure that dictates from the NEC is going to further this conversation, but rather is more likely to stop the conversation and move towards outright hostility.

James M. Branum
Oklahoma NLG Local chapter Chair
MLTF Co-Chair

Grief and Relief – the experience of making major life changes

This is a followup to my last post Life changes – seminary, law practice and activism. The nutshell version of that post is that I’ve decided to (1) end my time in seminary earlier than expected (graduating with a graduate-level certificate in May ’16 instead of an MDiv in ’20), (2) end most of my legal practice (finishing old cases and then after that only doing one CO case at a time) and (3)pare back my activism, so that I can focus more energy on my home and personal life.

The last couple of weeks have been a strange time for me. I’m still emotionally working through my feelings about the changes I am making in the trajectory of my life, while at the same time working through some of the “unfinished business” of the chapter of my life that is ending.

Grief and relief are my primary emotions, but I’m also feeling anxiety, fear, and excitement (for the possibilities of the next chapter).

Most of the grief part of the equation is about my change in seminary plans. I had been enrolled 1/2 time in seminary over the last couple of years, moving rapidly towards completing an MDiv. I was taking a mix of online classes as well as hybrid classes (in which I would spend one week on campus to supplement online work). The classes were for the most part fascinating and engaging, and I loved my time on campus at AMBS (normally 2-3 times per year I would take the train to Elkhart, Indiana). The times were sometimes hard (especially towards the end of the week), but also savored the alone time and the bit of a break from my joyful (but sometimes challenging) life as a fairly new father.

But of course not all was rosy.

The pace of the classes was insanely challenging. Often the required readings were as much or more than I had in law school, but the difference being that I was reading about stuff that really mattered. It’s not to say that law “didn’t matter,” but in some ways it doesn’t in the same way that theology matters. And let’s be frank, the law is often not terribly inspiring.

In law school I could just do a quick and dirty skim of the readings to prepare for class discussion (or more accurately BS’ing) but this wasn’t possible for me in seminary. Seminary readings were different and took a lot more out of me emotionally. And so I continually struggled to keep up. It was simply impossible to do the quality of study that I wanted to do, while taking care of the other parts of my life.

And I’ve also realized that my studies in the MDiv program weren’t ideal for my situation. The program is mostly geared towards a very general approach to ministry, sort of an all-purpose degree which would provide some degree of education that would be relevant to almost any ministry setting. While I was able to pick a major (most recently it was peace studies), this still required a lot of coursework that wasn’t terribly pertinent to my current ministry setting. Seminary worked better for me in the classes in which I could double-up, finding ways to immediately apply my coursework into my ministry or activism, but it was impossible for me to do that in some of my other classes. (which is no fault to the instructor or the class, but rather is a matter of my life situation).

And yet, my time at AMBS has been hands-down the best educational experience of my life. I have had good classes before as an undergrad and in law school, but never did have the chance to be part of an educational community like AMBS, which was truly a community – a graduate school where the professors weren’t “Doctor Somebody” or “Professor Importantperson” but rather folks like Loren, Rachel, Andy, Allan, etc. And the students were an awesome group of people – both the full-timers but also the working ministers who took classes like I did. I feel really bad about not seeing these folks as much in the future.

It is really hard to give this up. I was looking forward to another 4 years or so of half-time study and a bunch of weeks on campus (2-3 weeks per year during my remaining studies). I even bought a bicycle to keep on campus in Elkhart, so I would be able to have a bike during my times on campus.

This is definitely something worth grieving.

But I also know that the choice I’m making is a good one. Being able to focus more on my family is a wonderful thing, and being able to finish my time at AMBS well (I plan to take the summer and fall off and then take Social Theory for Christian Peacemakers in the Spring of 2016 and then graduate with a certificate rather than the MDiv) will be a very good thing.

And it will be wonderful to be able to continue my education informally, at my own pace. Ideally I’m hoping to blend self-directed learning with community, by finding a way to have a real educational community at Joy. There are so many possibilities here and I’m excited about it.

I also know that part of my grief isn’t about the present moment, but rather about my choice 13 years ago… I remember well my feelings after completing my first semester of law school. I HATED law school. It was a miserable experience and I wanted out, but I didn’t want to disappoint family and friends and I didn’t want to waste the money I had already paid (and the debt I had incurred through the process).

I truly believed that I had no choice but to keep plodding on. I did find ways to make the experience more bearable – mostly by following the advice of the NLG’s Disorientation Handbook to “subvert the experience” of law school, but it would have much better if I had actually listened to the yearnings of my heart and went to seminary instead. I could have easily gone to seminary full-time in those days and it would have been the perfect time of my life to do it, ideally living on campus and getting the full experience. But I didn’t have the courage or self-confidence to go down that path, so I instead stayed with law school. I know good stuff came from that decision (mostly in the lives of some of my former clients) but it was a much harder and more miserable path than I could have been on.

At the same time, regret of the past isn’t a good driving force for future action. It would be a bad decision to decide to stay with the MDiv out of a desire to undo the past, when the circumstances of my life have changed.

And so in light of all of this, I’m feeling a mix of emotions. Relief that I won’t be quite as overwhelmed with responsibilities this summer and fall, and relief that I will still get a degree of sorts (technically a certificate isn’t a degree, but it is still something). And relief that the part of my life that is most important to me – my family, will benefit from this decision.

The other big changes in my life to come are less weighty. I had already been working on scaling back my law practice, so this just means that I will hold to the decision I’ve already made to take no new cases (except for one CO case at a time) and to wrap up all of my old cases. There is some degree of guilt about this decision but less grief. I feel guilty about future clients that I won’t be able to help and for the GI Rights/active duty war resistance movement that I would love to contribute to in a bigger way. But I also know that my heart moved away from legal work a long time ago. Having an activist focus fueled me for a long time, but there comes a point that too much of even a good thing, is still just too much. I will still do a little legal work (and a fair bit of activist work), but it will no longer be the defining force of my life.

So those are my thoughts for tonight. Now… back to work on one of the old cases that I want to finish well. I think this is a big part of making this transition, to doing this cases well and finding satisfaction in doing this.

Life changes – seminary, law practice and activism

I don’t know if all blog authors do this, but I know I mostly write for myself. Certainly having an audience is a part of the equation, but part of it is also just writing for my future self to look back on, and also sometimes to solidify the personal commitments that I am making.

So in that spirit, I want to share a bit about some of the changes happening in my life.

Positively I am trying to focus more on my life at home, spending more time and energy on my family, growing garden and staying healthy. And also focusing more of my energy and life on my church community. And I especially want to find as many excuses possible to incorporate riding my bicycle into my life.

Negatively, I am trying to cut back on those parts of my life that are zapping energy away from those most important priorities. Many of the things I am trying to cut back or out are good things, but too much of a good thing is still too much.

Some specific areas include…

1. Seminary – I have been studying half-time at AMBS in their MDiv Connect program (a mix of online classes and in-person short courses mixed with online programming), but it is just too much. I will only be taking one class this summer and then will take a leave of absence for the fall. After that I will decide if I want to stay in the MDiv program at a slower pace or whether I will instead graduate after the Spring ’16 semester with a Certificate (I will 37 hours at that point). This decision isn’t easy, but I think it may be for the best. I either need to find a way to do my seminary classes in a more sane and manageable way or I need to reach a good breaking point to end this season of my life (I of course won’t be ending my education either way, but the education would take a different direction if done in a more informal manner).

2. Law Practice – I’ve been trying to pare back my legal work since getting married 3+ years ago but haven’t done well at it. So I need to stick with it this time, wrapping up my older cases well, and then taking no new cases except for a limited number of conscientious objector claims.

3. Activism – Another tough area to cut, but I think I’m going to use the next few months to end some of my areas of activist involvement and then chose to focus my energy on just a very things that are dear to me and that are sustainable.

So, I’m writing this for me but also for those dear to me (friends and family), so hopefully you can help encourage me to stick to what I need to do.

Everything is awesome… at Genghis Grill #HealthKwest 2015

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge. #Healthkwest #GenghisGrillAd http://t.co/JcWNs8HuyX. It is a cross-post from Health.JMBranum.com.

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Six Days in — time for a photo recap

This was previously posted at: http://health.jmbranum.com/2015/02/14/six-days-in-time-for-a-photo-recap/

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge.  #Healthkwest #GenghisGrillAd http://t.co/JcWNs8HuyX

I’m having a wonderful time so far in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest contest, but have been crazy busy keeping up with my diet, exercise and social media tasks for the contest (along with all of my regular work/school/family responsibilities), so I’m little tardy in blogging.

So, I thought what I do to catch up is tell the story with pictures!

Day 1 , Monday – Didn’t count calories, 1 hour exercise

I came into this day super-nervous. I have dieted so many times before and was worried about how I would do, but there’s a time to just plunge in and go for it.

So I did the weigh-in (302 pounds! yikes!) and then later that day got in my first bowl at Genghis Grill.

As you can see from the pictures, my wife brought roses for me to celebrate the occasion!


And here’s my first bowl. Super good!



And here’s my wife Becky and my son Ty eating with me…




Then we ended the night by working out at the Lighthouse Gym in NW OKC.


Day 2, Tuesday – 2028 calories – 45 minutes exercise

Unfortunately I can’t eat all of my meals at Genghis Grill, so I’m working on improving my cooking skills to use more veggies. So here’s what I fixed for breakfast…



Then later in the day I met my co-workers from the Center for Conscience in Action, a non-profit peace and social justice organization I work with. Of course we ate GG.


And here’s my bowl…



Later that night I worked out with my family. I’m shooting for 40 minutes to an hour per day, doing a mix of interval training on the bike and weight training.

Day 3 – 2025 calories – 45 minutes exercise

This was a crazy good bowl…



Very busy day but still got in the workout thanks to my wife’s encouragement.

Day 4 – 1904 calories – 1 hour exercise

Thursday was a very busy day but I got in my bowl and my exericse.


Day 5 – 1826 calories – 45 minutes exercise

Friday was a gloriously good day. It started in the afternoon with an awesome bowl – this time made with the citrus ginger sauce!







And then that evening we had a glorious Valentine’s eve date!

Day 6 – Still counting

Today I took my family and my in-laws to GG for lunch. This afternoon I will be out driving the pedicab and hopefully burning off a lot of calories.




Day 1 – The Weigh in!

This was originally posted at: http://health.jmbranum.com/2015/02/09/day-1-the-weigh-in/

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge. #Ad http://t.co/JcWNs8HuyX

The Kwest is now officially underway as I did my first weigh in. Relatively painless but I didn’t like what the scale said (my home scale shows much lower —  of course I normally weigh after getting out of the shower in the morning so this must be a factor). But that is why I’m in this contest.

So here’s my checklist of tasks for the rest of today in Kwest for good health…

  • Eat a healthy bowl at Genghis Grill for supper
  • Get an hour of exercise in
  • Spend some time in prayer and meditation
  • Kiss my wife!
day1photo - James M Branum, Genghis Grill HealthKwest 2015
day1photo – James M Branum, Genghis Grill HealthKwest 2015

The last day before the Kwest Begins…

This was previously posted at http://health.jmbranum.com/2015/02/08/the-last-day-before-the-kwest-begins/

Disclaimer: This post is part of my participation in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest Challenge. #Ad http://t.co/JcWNs8HuyX

Tomorrow is my first day of the Genghis Grill Health Kwest challenge. I will be doing the weigh in and of course eating my first bowl for the challenge at Genghis Grill.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on nutrition and exercise over the last few weeks to put together my plan of action. I’m sure I will have to tweak a lot along the way, but want to start well.

My first goal is to stay healthy through this contest. I’ve talked to my doctor (and will be meeting again later in the month for another checkup), but from what she has told me I can’t go wrong by eating lots of veggies, lean protein and getting lots of exercise. Carb-wise, I need to closely monitor those, ideally spreading them out through the day, and course monitoring my blood sugar (I’m diabetic) and make adjustments in food through out the day.

My second goal is to lose a lot of weight and win this contest. From what I can tell, past winners have an average of 4-7 pounds per week, so I’m shooting to lose a minimum of 4 pounds per week.

So based on my current weight, I need to eat 3400 calories per day to maintain my weight (FYI, I’m rounding these numbers for simplicity’s sake), which means to lose one pound of weight, I need to reduce my caloric intake by about 500 calories per day.

So to lose

  • 1 pound per week = Eat no more than 2900 calories per day (9 pounds total in Kwest)
  • 2 pounds per week = Eat no more than 2400 calories per day (18 pounds total)
  • 3 pounds per week = Eat no more than 1900 calories per day (27 pounds total)
  • 4 pounds per week = Eat no more than 1400 calories per day (36 pounds total)
  • 5 pounds per week = Eat no more than 900 calories per day (45 pounds total)

Obviously there is a problem here. Going from around 3500 calories per day to 900 calories per day would be disastrous for me both mentally and physically.  Does this mean winning is impossible?

No. I don’t think so.

The key to making this doable will be exercise, mostly in my case bicycling (both on my regular bike and on the pedicab). From what I can tell from several sources, I burn about 789 calories by riding my bicycle at a moderate pace (10-12 mph) for one hour! This is huge!!!

So, my plan (at least out of the gate) will be to shoot for 2100 calories per day but to ride at least one hour per day during the challenge. If I do this, my net calories (calories consumed minus extra calories burned through exercise) would be around 1400 calories per day, which would give me projected weight loss of four pounds per day. Then on days that I have time or energy to ride more, then I could either boost my calories (I may have to, to keep my blood sugar where it needs to be) or just speed up the weight loss.

One last part of the plan. 1/3 of my meals will be at Genghis Grill, so it is important that I am smart about what I eat there for my daily bowls. After a lot of searching, I found what I think is accurate nutritional information on most of the ingredients of Genghis Grill Bowls, the biggie being that this site provides the portion size for the ingredients (saying “Chicken is X number of calories” does me no good if I have no idea how much chicken is X number of calories).  The obvious change to the bowls to gain the most calorie savings will be to load them up high with veggies, to go easy on the meat (and maybe some days to go all veggies), dilute the sauces (either with garlic water or soy sauce — I have yet to find accurate information on the calorie counts for the sauces) and then go easy on the starches (or maybe even eliminate them some days).

The good news here is that if I allocate 1/3 of my calories for my GG bowl, then I can use up to 700 calories, which will be a very doable proposition while still eating very well.

So that’s my game plan.


Entries close tonight… now the waiting

This post was originally posted at: http://health.jmbranum.com/2015/01/27/entries-close-tonight-now-the-waiting/

I’ve started this blog to tell my story – the story of how I will get in shape and hopefully make my life healthier, happier, and filled with more bicycling.

So, the spark for this is that I’m entering a contest by Genghis Grill (the awesome mongolian-style build-your-own stirfry place), in which 92 folks (one from each store) are competing for a chance to win $10,000.

Want to make bad eating habits ancient history? Health Kwest lets you dig in while watching the weight retreat. In its first four years, Health Kwest contestants lost almost 5,000 pounds by eating a different Genghis Grill bowl every day for 60 days.

Join alongside these intrepid leaders and build your own bowl from over 80 delicious, fresh and healthy ingredients and you could win $10,000 and a healthier lifestyle.

Certainly it would be awesome to win the $10,000 (I already know what I would do with the money – I would buy a top of the line Pedicab to drive in Oklahoma City), but even making the cut for the finals would be a wonderful thing, since it would mean that I would have 60 FREE wonderful healthy meals to jump start my weight loss and fitness plans.

The entries for the first round close tonight and I understand they are picking the finalists based on social media response, so please, please go to http://bit.ly/1wZREFh and post a message of support or share it on social media. Thanks!