Skip Navigation
Regional News
Milk Not Jails' Lauren Melodia and her team want to convince New York to invest in farms, not prisons. Photo: David Sommerstein
Milk Not Jails' Lauren Melodia and her team want to convince New York to invest in farms, not prisons. Photo: David Sommerstein

What could replace the North Country's prison industry?

Listen to this story
This week, our Prison Time Media Project is examining the North Country's vast complex of prisons. It's an industry from Cape Vincent to Chateaugay that employs thousands of people in a region with few other options.

Today we ask - what if? What if the crime rate continues to drop and the number of inmates locked up continues to fall? What if, as Governor Cuomo has advocated, New York keeps closing prisons, as it did in Lyon Mountain and Gabriels?

What's next for the North Country's prison towns?

One tiny not-for-profit from New York City has an idea. Take the money saved from shuttering prisons and spend that money on agriculture. David Sommerstein reports.

Hear this

Download audio

Share this


A family block party in the Bronx on one of the hottest days of summer seems a world away from the North Country.

MCs rap about seeking a righteous path away from crime. Mostly black and latino faces head-nod and raise their hands in the air.

RAPPING: Say hola, hola hola!

A huge drab housing project looms over the block.

But this world and the North Country do share a common bond. Plenty of people here know Upstate New York because their loved ones are imprisoned there.

BURTON: I’m very familiar. My son, he’s at Auburn Correctional Facility.

Auburn is in the Finger Lakes. And June Burton says she didn’t get to enjoy the lake views or the rolling hills.

BURTON: I haven’t seen none of that, but I have seen the inside of the prison.

Eric Branch understands the messy marriage between New York City and the North Country firsthand. While imprisioned for 8 years in Malone, he worked on a dairy farm. Photo: David Sommerstein
Eric Branch understands the messy marriage between New York City and the North Country firsthand. While imprisioned for 8 years in Malone, he worked on a dairy farm. Photo: David Sommerstein
Eric Branch, who lives down the street, has seen the farm fields of the North Country, from the inside out – as an inmate for 8 years at one of the state prisons in Malone.

BRANCH: We used to work outside. I had outside clearance. So I used to work on a farm over there. We made the compost and stuff like that. I mowed the lawns.

Beginning in the 1980s - without knowing it, really - urban and rural New York entered into a messy, racially-charged marriage. The Rockefeller drug laws locked up tens of thousands of minority convicts from the cities. And white people in places like the North Country took on the task of incarcerating them in prisons, giving jobs to thousands of corrections officers and other workers.

But New York’s crime rate has dropped 15% in a decade. And since the Rockefeller drug laws were largely repealed in 2009, the number of people behind bars has plummeted by almost 25%. Governor Andrew Cuomo has made it clear – prisons will close. Here’s Cuomo at the beginning of this year.

CUOMO: We propose to close two of the least efficient prison facilities. If we’re serious about balancing the budget, then let’s run government the way it has to be run and close these two facilities.

Cuomo has since expanded that list to six prisons, including two in the north country.  If all these closures occur, Cuomo will have mothballed a total of 15 correctional facilities across the state - four in the north country alone.

And reform advocates here in the City say, good, it’s about time.

MELODIA: We have people being kept in cages for 30, 40 years. I just think that’s unethical.

Lauren Melodia is one of those advocates – but with a twist. Rather than work to break this accidental 40 year-old rural-urban bond, Melodia’s group Milk Not Jails wants to refocus and reshape it – from one that provides prison jobs to Upstate New Yorkers to one that creates farm jobs.

So on this sweltering day, Melodia and her crew are dressed in old fashioned red –and-white stripped milkmaid outfits selling – what else? – ice cream.

MELODIA: Ice cream is a great way to get people to talk to you. DAVID: On a 95 degree day. MELODIA: Absolutely.

So Melodia and her milkmaids make their pitch to long lines of block partygoers. Let’s use New York City’s consumer power to support milk, not jails, they say. Problem is, the pitch is complicated.

MELODIA: Build an alternative to the prison industry Upstate by supporting dairy farmers and the ice cream we’re serving comes from a farm that is actively working with us to change those systems. DAVID: And what do they say? MELODIA: They usually say, I’ll take chocolate or vanilla, y’know?

The ice cream runs out. Melodia and I seek the cool of AC.

MELODIA: Really, I think what we’re trying to point to is how backwards policy making has been, and continues to be.

Melodia says Milk Not Jails envisions a new political axis in New York. Rural and urban lawmakers – both of whom represent distressed, poverty-stricken communities – championing a package of bills to divert hundreds of millions of dollars now used to pay for prisons instead fueling an agricultural renaissance.

MELODIA: If this is really about rural economic sustainability, then why not use all of those tax dollars we are wasting in the criminal justice industry and pay a bunch of farmers a living wage, y’know?

Milk Not Jails is a blip on the Albany political landscape. But almost nobody is proposing a different alternative to the North Country’s reliance on prison jobs - no matter how far-fetched. And when you talk to leaders in prison towns like Ogdensburg in St. Lawrence County, there’s little appetite for change.

Longtime Ogdensburg Journal publisher Chuck Kelly has spent half a century attracting and protecting prison jobs in the North Country. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Longtime Ogdensburg Journal publisher Chuck Kelly has spent half a century attracting and protecting prison jobs in the North Country. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Chuck Kelly walks around Ogdensburg City Hall like he owns the place. He almost does. For half a century, his column as publisher of the Ogdensburg Journal was THE voice of the city. And his mantra has never waivered.

KELLY: We need jobs up here. We live in a poor region of the state.

Kelly ticks off his fingers the industrial plants along the St. Lawrence Riverfront that had gone silent by 1980.

KELLY: Diamond International, Becker-Moore, Standard Shade Roller, the Cleveland Container.

Kelly was there the day Governor Mario Cuomo cut the ribbon on the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility in 1982 – the first in an explosion of North Country prison construction. Kelly sat on the committee that lured it there.

KELLY: It was a very big day because it was something that we worked to get. We asked for it. When we asked for this prison – Ogdensburg Correctional Facility – we were the only city or town or village in the state of New York seeking a prison.

That day brought 300 jobs. A second prison brought 500 more. And Kelly is unapologetic to this day. This is economic development.

KELLY: Why shouldn’t people have jobs? Some of our community leaders work there, live there. If you could replace a prison with an IBM, good. I’m all for that. But don’t take a prison out of here and make everyone unemployed.

Governor Cuomo tried to take a prison away in 2010. Two thousand people rallied outside city hall to stop him, including Tim Richards, member of a task force that Chuck Kelly chaired.

RICHARDS: [cheers] Albany must have thought we were a small dog, but guess what, we’re not afraid to get off the porch.

The small dog won the fight. So when Chuck Kelly hears that Milk Not Jails wants New York to invest in farms, he says, great. But when it says close prisons, he becomes that small, fierce dog.

KELLY:Let them advocate that. Let them fight for it. Like everybody else has had to do. These prisons just didn’t happen up here!

In fact, there’s a deeply entrenched belief here that the North Country really bailed out New York State back in the 80s, when thousands of new felons were overcrowding prisons and other towns said, “not in our backyard”.

PAT KELLY: The communities across the North Country stood up and raised their hands and said we would welcome these facilities. We were there for you then, don’t forget about us now. That’s certainly a part of people’s mindset.

Pat Kelly – Chuck’s nephew, it happens – directs St. Lawrence County’s Industrial Development Agency. He agrees the region needs to reduce its reliance on prison jobs, but by diversifying, not by closing prisons. He says North Country prisons are cheaper to run for New York - lower real estate prices, lower cost-of-living and salaries.

PAT KELLY: There’s the downstate adjustment that they have to pay to the facilities in the more expensive parts of the state that they don’t have to pay here. When you look at this economically, the North Country looks really good.

As for Milk Not Jails’ plan of replacing prisons with funding for agriculture, Kelly fears those prison investments would never come back.

PAT KELLY:Boy, it just sounds like it’s fraught with peril.

Milk Not Jails has met with a staffer from North Country Senator Patty Ritchie’s office. Ritchie chairs the Senate agriculture committee.

SEN. RITCHIE: I’m all for any ways to advance agriculture in New York State.

But she says coupling it with downsizing the prison system doesn’t scan. Ritchie says, for instance, county jails are too full with inmates who belong in state lockups.

SEN. RITCHIE: To say that our state facilities are not full and we’re looking to close them when we’re not picking up state-ready inmates in a timely fashion is placing an unfair burden on all our county jails, which are bursting at the seams.

Milk Not Jails tries to spread its message with fun, too. MNJ volunteers help kids make silkscreen posters that read "Pop the Prison." Photo: David Sommerstein
Milk Not Jails tries to spread its message with fun, too. MNJ volunteers help kids make silkscreen posters that read "Pop the Prison." Photo: David Sommerstein
Back in New York City, Lauren Melodia admits Milk Not Jails has a long way to go to make its case. But she says reaching out to rural lawmakers is a teeny first step in steering New York away from corrections.

MELODIA: We’re not saying, like, can you support a prison closure in your district because none of them will. If we can maybe get them to pass a package of bills for us that can help us get some of our loved ones out of prison, that’s a start.

Milk Not Jails is already marketing its own label of New York-made milk. Melodia envisions the City’s pizzerias buying New York-made mozzarella and bagelries buying New York cream cheese.

In Ogdensburg, Chuck Kelly is a skeptic.

CHUCK KELLY: There’s a lot of dreamers in this world. But you’ve got to put bread and butter on the table. And these guys at the prisons and the ladies at the prisons, they work very very hard. They’re damn good citizens.

And after all the North Country has given since New York’s ballooning corrections system began 40 years ago, Kelly says these corrections officers don’t deserve to lose their jobs. But if New York’s inmate population continues to decline that argument may be harder and harder to make.

 

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 Foundation. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org.

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.