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The Secret Behind New York's Alternative to a Prison Economy? Milk

How the organization Milk Not Jails, an unusual intervention of both the prison and food justice movements, is working to reform New York's economy.

Photo Credit: Vynogradova


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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced this summer that he will be  closing four more state prisons. Combined with two shuttered this month, that will bring the grand total of prison closures over the last two years to 13.

State officials say the rapid rate of prison closures is the result of sharp declines in the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses. They’ve  dropped by 71 percent since 1996, from 24,085 to 7,053.  Advocates attribute the  decline to 2009 reforms of the infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws, and to efforts to end the NYPD’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Stop and frisk has overwhelmingly targeted young men of color and led to an exorbitant number of arrests for  marijuana possession.

But Governor Cuomo’s move, which many prison reform activists are thrilled about, has been a flash point for residents of the upstate rural areas surrounding upstate penitentiaries who depend on prisons for jobs, as well as the elected officials who represent them. 

Enter Milk Not Jails, an unusual intervention that draws from both the prison and food justice movements. Volunteer-run and based in New York City, the organization has worked closely with groups on both sides of the coin to present dairy farming as an alternative to New York State’s prison-dependent rural economies.

The organization lobbies legislators on policy initiatives including the decriminalization of marijuana, closing empty prisons, increasing the amount of locally sourced school food, and legalizing the sale of raw milk. On the commercial side, they partner with upstate dairy farms to market and distribute their products to consumers and farmers markets in New York City. The organization’s goal, according to co-founder Lauren Melodia, is to create closer ties between upstate and downstate economies and issues.

"There are criminal justice and anti-policing campaigns in New York State that unfortunately don’t have enough rural support. We see ourselves very specifically playing the role of mobilizing strategic rural support for those initiatives so we can get laws changed at the state level,” says Melodia. “On the flip side, there’s a lot of hard-working farmers trying change laws that impact their lives and their work, but they don’t have enough urban support. So we’re trying to provide that for them. We are mobilizing urban consumers to care about where their food comes from and we’re asking rural farmers to help participate in building healthy [urban] communities.”

To fulfill their goal Milk Not Jails hosts events such as ice cream socials in rural areas where they teach both children and adults about the racial dynamics of the prison system; they urge dairy farmers to speak up about prison issues; and they circulate petitions that call for policy change.

Milk Not Jails isn’t alone in seeing the potential for dairy farming as a way to reinvigorate rural areas. On September 18, Cuomo announced a major investment in Central New York’s  Byrne Dairy that would create 458 jobs. And New York recently emerged as the  leading producer of greek yogurt, which has become a nationwide addiction, an indication that upstate New York is poised to return to an economy that more closely mirrors one before the prison industry boom.

New York once boasted one of the most robust dairy farming industries in the country. But that industry has been on the  decline for several decades owing to a decrease in the price of milk combined with a demand for large-scale production and an increase in costs for grain to feed the cows and fuel for transport.

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