A Unique Alternative to a Prison Economy

Prisons are big business in upstate New York, but many are closing. Milk Not Jails is working to promote a new industry in the state's shifting rural landscape.

By Von Diaz Sep 23, 2013

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.

As the dairy industry declined, the prison industry grew. It has since become a leading employer in the region. According to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), between the early 1800s and 1981 approximately 30 prisons were built in New York. Most of the state’s prisons are upstate and they’ve served as a source of economic stimulus for the region. The system has been maintained by a steady flow of prisoners arrested in New York City. Those prisoners are predominantly black and Latino. Today the ratio of black to white inmates is nearly 6 to 1, and the Latino population is almost 2 to 1.

According Gabriel Sayegh, DPA’s New York state director, dairy farms can counterbalance the power of upstate prison lobbies. DPA has worked with Milk Not Jails on marijuana decriminalization initiatives. 

"Dairy farms make a sizable contribution [to the upstate economy] and participants in that industry have a powerful political voice in these very same regions where the only voices have being crying out to keep prisons open and build more of them," says Sayegh. "We can build more relationships between downstate and upstate communities. We can also build a different kind of sensitivity around what those two communities should be sending one another. They should not be funneling black and brown bodies out of New York City."

Sayegh says that some rural communities’ dependence on the prison economy has led to a disregard of the reality of a prison system that locks up mostly black and brown people who are disproportionately targeted by police. He says people have told him that the free labor prisoners provide, such as painting schools and churches, and the need to keep guards and officials working guides their thinking on prison reform. 

"It’s explicit, and it’s ugly," Sayegh says, "It signals the extent to which racism remains an enmeshed factor in ways that people are not necessarily thinking about."

Melodia says that while their organization is not focused on finding new jobs for prison employees who are laid off, dairy farming has had such an important role in upstate New York that it may be considered as a viable option.  

"Our focus is on how much better for the economy dairy farming and other agriculture is for creating jobs than the prison industry," she says.

Along with building rural support for prison reform, Milk Not Jails also plans to provide work for formerly incarcerated people in a worker-owned cooperative that markets and distributes dairy products produced by Milk Not Jails farms. The business will pay employees a living wage and will recruit from prisoner reentry programs such as Green Career Center, the Fortune Society, The Doe Fund and Exodus Transitional. 

Tychist Baker, co-founder of Milk Not Jails, is one the founding employees. He was incarcerated for drug possession charges from 1998 to 2006. Growing up in New York, his personal story sadly mirrors that of many children of color living in impoverished neighborhoods. His mother was addicted to drugs and he found himself homeless at age 10. He found a new family among the *Blood Nation, started using and dealing drugs, and went to jail at age 21. Today Baker applies his experience to the Milk Not Jails workers co-op. 

"I can’t come to these children out here, and the youth out here, even grown men out here and be like ‘Yo listen, stop selling drugs, stop doing negative things to make a dollar,’ when I’m not even offering them a job to make an honest buck," Baker says of the growing business.

To form partnerships with dairy farms, Milk Not Jails educates farmers about the toll the prison industry takes on communities. Shannon Mason, the director of Cowbella Creamery, is one such farmer. She says she’d never considered the prison industry before the organization approached her.

"It’s disheartening to think about this beautiful area in upstate New York that used to be tremendously rich in agriculture turning into a prison system. You know, it’s a sad state of affairs," Mason says.

Milk Not Jails is certainly a small, grassroots effort. Of the numerous dairy farms in upstate New York they work with only five. But they are endorsed by 20, and their catchy, albeit a bit quirky marketing strategy is bringing attention to two seemingly disparate causes that are deeply entwined.

The New York State Legislature is back in session this January, and many of the initiatives that didn’t pass this year will be back on the table. Starting then, Milk Not Jails will resume working towards their robust policy agenda–and they’ll continue pushing New York milk.

*This article has been corrected to reflect Tychist Baker’s gang affiliation, which is Blood Nation, not the Crips.