Milk Not Jails Uses Dairy to Reform Prisons

Prison reform and agriculture don't seem to have much in common. The first usually deals with human rights, rehabilitation, wrongful incarceration; agriculture is about rural communities, food economy, and environment. Yet if you take a closer look at rural areas throughout the United States, you might find an interesting connection between them.

In New York State, 90 percent of state prisons are located in rural areas. Though NYC may feel like the center of finance and expensive housing, the countryside tells a different story. Approximately half of all children from upstate cities like Rochester, Syracuse, or Buffalo live below the poverty line.

No one who can help it wants a prison in their backyard. Yet in economically depressed areas, the jobs they promise are the difference between unemployment and a paycheck, pension, and health insurance. Only thirty-six percent of prisons were located in rural areas prior to 1980. But prisons, local leaders discovered, created an average of 35 jobs per 100 inmates. Between 1990 and 1999, a prison was built in rural America every 15 days on average. Unfortunately, prisons are not meant to be a growth industry. Without more prisoners, you don't get more jobs.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has closed over 13 New York State prisons in the last three years. It's impossible to look at shuttered prisons without recognizing that they're taking away what is often one of few sources of employment in an already struggling area. So if the prisons go, what is supposed to take their place?

This is where agriculture comes into play.

Credit: Dimitri Ponirakis

In 2010, activist and organizer Lauren Melodia founded an organization called Milk Not Jails. Equal parts rural revitalization and prison reform, their goal is to boost the state dairy industry in order to end an economic dependence on prisons. Why dairy? New York State is actually the third largest producer of dairy in the United States. For each dollar made from agricultural products in the state, another $0.43 is generated in additional economic activity according to a 2014 report by Cornell professor Todd Schmit. Agricultural employment also has trickle down effects to other industries; every farm job supports 0.8 non-agricultural jobs.

When you look at all the evidence, the two-pronged approach of Milk Not Jails might make it the smartest advocacy organization yet. Their proposed economic solution to prison reform is built right into their mission. As Melodia said, "If we can't come up with alternatives, we can't change it." Though the New York State government does invest heavily in agriculture, the idea of substituting one economic industry for another might be too complicated for a state to tackle. "Government always prefers either business that brings in tax dollars or multimillion dollar corporations that get huge tax breaks," Melodia said, "But agriculture is an economy that trickles up from the ground."

Rural economies aren't built for big business or large corporations but farming is perfect for large swaths of productive land and few people. Agriculture makes the best use of space, generates jobs, and naturally ties the rural economy to the urban economy.

Milk Not Jails runs a two-pronged approach to revitalizing rural New York. Their most visible platform is a Milk Not Jails label that markets, sells, and distributes milk from farmers who need an extra boost. The business itself is owned by the farmers and workers who run that project and you can find their items in CSAs across New York City. They've also tried to employ formerly incarcerated workers--they pay three part-time--who are learning the skills to become business leaders. Though they work with a few small dairies, they're hoping to pool directly from farms who don't process their own products and do so under the Milk Not Jails label.

Outside the business, they're also very active in policy--both to promote prison reform and rural communities. Thirteen prisons were closed since Milk Not Jails was founded. "Now we're seeing the process of what happens after prisons are reclaimed by the state," Melodia said. It's time to see if their ideas can really work.

But to revitalize rural New York's agricultural industry, we're going to need more than farmers markets and CSAs. The pricing structure of federal milk and the price dairy farmers are able to get for their product is one major obstacle to using dairy as a vehicle for economic revitalization. In essence, farmers are paid according to the end-use of their product. It benefits the consumer while reimbursing farmers varied amounts for the same work. "We want food to be affordable," Melodia said, "But we need a new pricing structure so farmers are getting paid what they need to stay in business."

Legalizing the sale of raw milk would be one simple way to make that happen. Because dairy farmers don't need to pasteurize raw milk, they would be able to sell it without expensive processing fees. Though raw milk is common in many other countries, the United States government is vehemently opposed.

Unfortunately, it may be more difficult for an organization like Milk Not Jails to make a difference through policy than business. Though Melodia feels their policy agenda shouldn't be hard to pass, the fact is there are items on their list that activists have been trying to reform for years. While there's a possibility that the Milk Not Jails label of dairy products could one day gain enough clout to rival Dean Foods, a Texas-based monopoly that controls 70 percent of fluid milk distributed in New England, it won't happen overnight. So how can the organization make a difference?

By playing to their strength: bringing together agriculture and prisons, two seemingly disparate causes. Not only is it a rather elegant solution to a complicated problem, it's practical too. Even better, the link between rural economies and prisons is something that most of the public doesn't think of--Milk Not Jails is here to get us thinking.

And they're not giving up any time soon. Melodia is hoping that this is the year the state legislature finally listens to them. Their policy items are relatively small but have the potential to change a lot of people's lives. The passage of just one would be a resounding success but Milk Not Jails is hoping for a grand slam. "This is the year we pass all of them," Melodia said, "We won't settle for one item just yet."

-Tove K. Danovich