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"Milk Not Jails" is the brain child of activist Lauren Melodia, who spent a year in Canton and Ogdensburg Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/MilkNotJails?fref=ts">MNJ Facebook page</a>, used by permission
"Milk Not Jails" is the brain child of activist Lauren Melodia, who spent a year in Canton and Ogdensburg Photo: MNJ Facebook page, used by permission

What if NY invested more in dairy farms and less in prisons?

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This week we've been looking at the fortunes of the North Country's dairy industry and some of the hurdles faced by farmers and processors.

Over the last few months, our Prison Time Media Project has also been looking at the way prisons shape communities and the local economy in the North Country.

There are more than a dozen state and Federal prisons in the region, along with eleven county jails. That makes corrections work one of our top employers.

One activist group based in Brooklyn thinks these two issues -- prison jobs and the dairy industry -- should be linked in people's minds, as we think about ways to grow the rural economy. That group's called "Milk Not Jails."

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Lauren Melodia (at right) in Albany in April, 2013, to meet with lawmakers about prison and dairy issues. Photo courtesy Milk Not Jails
Lauren Melodia (at right) in Albany in April, 2013, to meet with lawmakers about prison and dairy issues. Photo courtesy Milk Not Jails
The first time I called Milk Not Jails, and got the group's answering machine message, I realized that this is a group connecting dots that we don't hear connected very often.

"Thank you for calling Milk Not Jails, working to build a new urban-rural relationship in New York state."

Sounds like an activist group – right? But then the phone message pivots and starts talking about selling actual milk.

"Please enjoy our new political line of dairy products by ordering them at your local CSA," the message invites.

Track down Milk Not Jails on YouTube and it gets even weirder. A human ice cream cone, I'm not making this up, standing in her kitchen having a big glass of milk and talking about prisons.

"We're Milk Not Jails and we're building a new urban-rural relationship by launching a political brand of dairy products!" the swirl-cone chirps.

This whole project, Milk Not Jails, is the brainchild of Lauren Melodia, who lives in Brooklyn and has spent the better part of a decade trying to connect upstate and downstate communities around the question of how their economies interact.

She says she was working in an urban neighborhood trying to raise awareness about food issues, and prisons just kept coming up.

"The community that I was trying to bring fresh food into had very little access to fresh produce," Melodia says.

"And oftentimes we would take bus trips up to the farm where we received our produce from. And a lot of the people on the bus would say that they'd never been upstate except to visit someone in prison."

This photo taken at a Milk Not Jails rally. Photo courtesy Milk Not Jails
This photo taken at a Milk Not Jails rally. Photo courtesy Milk Not Jails
Melodia also spent a year in Ogdensburg and Canton, trying to make connections in the North Country that would begin to open a new conversation about how prisons shape lives.

"I was in Ogdensburg at the same time that Governor David Paterson was considering closing Ogdensburg Correctional Facility. And people refer to the Ogdensburg and Riverview correctional facilities as the last factories in town. That's absolutely real for people." (Hear the views of lawmakers and corrections workers who fought successfully to save Ogdensburg Correctional Facility here.)

In the videos, Lauren Melodia is the one dressed up like someone working in a 1950s ice cream shop. Her basic idea goes something like this.

Milk Not Jails is also trying to educate urban consumers about food and farm issues. Photo courtesy Milk Not Jails
Milk Not Jails is also trying to educate urban consumers about food and farm issues. Photo courtesy Milk Not Jails
She thinks New York state should invest more money in dairy farms and agriculture – and less money locking up prison inmates, especially low-level and non-violent offenders.

"There's all this spin-off economic activity that goes hand-in-hand with agriculture. You have processing, you have distribution, you have tourism. We can't say the same thing for prisons. They don't have that kind of economic growth opportunity."

Melodia points out that prisons are also less reliable than they used to be. As inmate populations have dropped, seven correctional facilities have closed – and two more are slated to shut down this year.

The state Department of Corrections says the prison population will drop by another 800 this year.

In Milk Not Jails video, the group argues that it's time to break the connection between jobs and prisons.

"The guards' union and the politicans who represent them oppose major reforms that could make the system work better and prevent people from going to prison in the first place. Why? They're worried that it could create job loss in their community."

That message is a tough sell in communities, like Ogendsburg, that rely on corrections jobs. Melodia says Milk Not Jails met yesterday in Albany with the staff of North Country Senator Patty Ritchie.

Melodia says lawmakers are open to the discussion of boosting dairy and agriculture. But talk of closing more prisons? That doesn't go over so well.

"I understand that the crisis at this point is that these are the last factories in town and we can't get rid of them," she says.

"What we're trying to do is build some kind of long-term planning in the communities where these prisons are housed so there's not that dependency."

In addition to its lobbying efforts, Milk Not Jails already offers a basic line of dairy products, from butter to yogurt, that's mostly marketed through CSA programs in New York City.

The group's video includes a testimonial from one dairy farmer who talks about the value of marketing directly to consumers in the city. "I am very excited to be part of Milk Not Jails," he says.

Of course for dairy to play a bigger role in rural economies, dairy has to survive and grow and employ more people.

Melodia says one way to make that happen is to plow some of the tens of millions of dollars in savings from prison downsizing right back into programs that help upstate dairy farmers.

This story is part of a series on current issues and the future of dairy in the North Country. To see more stories in this series, click here.

Join a discussion of Milk Not Jails agenda at our food and farm blog The Dirt. Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

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