In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down four state prisons and cut $8 million from the Department of Corrections’ budget. This is good news for prison reform activists, but rural residents point out that many people in the state rely on the jobs the prisons provide. “[Closing prisons] might increase unemployment in the area,” says dairy farmer Casimer Trybuskiewicz. “[But] that does not justify locking so many people up.”
In order to create jobs and economic growth during the 1980s and 90s, many states, including New York, built new prisons in rural areas. Activists like Lauren Melodia thinks there is a better way to improve local economies upstate.
Melodia is the founder of Milk Not Jails, a campaign started in March 2010 that has created an alliance of volunteers, prison justice activists, formerly incarcerated (in prison) people, local food enthusiasts and farmers in urban and rural New York. She believes that agriculture and dairy provide a link between urban and rural communities while building a healthy economic relationship. The campaign also aims to hire formerly incarcerated people to drive the dairy products to be sold at stores in New York City. Tychist Baker, who spent years in upstate prisons and is now an organizer with Milk Not Jails, says the campaign has helped him think about alternative paths to creating jobs and building economy in New York state.
So far, Milk Not Jails is a small campaign, but organizers are excited about its potential. Organizer Brendan Beck said, “We exist to encourage New York’s economic move away from the false promise of incarceration and towards the healthful and mutually beneficial promise of farms.”