With a $2.5 billion dollar budget, the Department of Corrections and Community supervision — the notorious DOCCS — is the New York’s largest state agency. That’s a pretty shocking statistic, but it’s something that the people at Milk Not Jails are striving to change.
Milk Not Jails strives to address the fact that there are a growing number of upstate rural communities economically dependent on prisons. In fact, 90 percent of New York’s prisons are located in upstate rural areas. In the rural communities that house state prisons, the economy of mass incarceration has replaced the agricultural and manufacturing economies that once blossomed in the area.
As the group explains on its website, these areas once relied on major waterways like the Erie Canal and the Hudson River to transport goods. Because these major transportation routes were the only way to move goods quickly from New England to the Midwest, thriving communities developed in the towns along such routes. Farmers were successful and they enjoyed a geographic advantage when shipping their goods. Manufacturing burgeoned as a result of the busy trade routes. And then …
The development of the automotive industry meant the New England didn’t need to ship goods through upstate New York, and upstate communities began to enter tough economic times. Milk Not Jails explains that upstate communities suffered even more as federal agricultural policy encouraged farm consolidation and federal trade policy created tax breaks and incentives to leave the state.
However, when New York state began building prisons rapidly during the Rockefeller Drug Law era, the facilities were situated in these economically devastated rural communities to provide jobs. Unfortunately this created entire communities that became completely economically dependent on the rubric of mass incarceration. As Milk Not Jails explains, “A bloated, racist, ineffective prison system is being used as a stand-in for economic development policy in the counties where prisons are located.”
As a result of this economic dependence on mass incarceration, rural legislators in prison communities are often resistant to changing drug laws, parole policies, and other prison reform measures. In one of Milk Not Jails’s videos, they cited the example of State Senator Betty Little who staunchly opposed the repealing of the Rockefeller laws on the grounds that parts of upstate would be devastated if they lost any jobs in corrections.
As Milk Not Jails explains, state senators in these rural prison communities will eventually reverse their positions if they see enough support for prison reform. Currently, correction officers’ unions are the loudest voices in these communities, so other community members — such as farmers — need to speak up in favor of prison reform if we hope to see any change.
To garner support from dairy farmers, Milk Not Jails works to help them sell their product. Most dairy farmers get a minimum payment set by the state which is not enough for small farmers to survive. Milk Not Jails decided to solve this problem by starting their own milk marketing distribution company. Hopefully, that will give farmers economic incentive to support this movement so that eventually there will be a strong chorus of rural voices speaking out against policies of mass incarceration instead of only urban ones.