Brenden Beck is an organizer with Milk Not Jails, a grassroots campaign working to build a new urban-rural alliance in New York State. He lives in Brooklyn and drinks 2%.
Milk Not Jails is giving a workshop at the Just Food conference on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 2 p.m.
Casimer Trybuskiewicz has been a dairy farmer his whole life, and his father before him was, too. He runs Casey Dairy Farm with his family in Attica, N.Y., a small town about 30 miles east of Buffalo. A short drive from Casey Dairy and its 45 cows are two prisons.
As a resident of New York City, I can help Attica’s economy in two ways: either by buying milk from Casey Dairy, or getting locked up.
For decades, New York State policy makers counted on a lot of city residents getting arrested and sent to rural prisons. Afraid that farm jobs were forever lost, they staked the upstate economy on incarceration. State Sen. Betty Little put it this way: “The area I represent is northern New York, it’s very rural, and we built an economy around these [prison] facilities.”
Today, with fewer people incarcerated and New York’s farms showing signs of a resurgence, the economic picture is starting to change.
Milk is poised to be a strong jobs generator for rural New York. Dairy accounts for over half of New York’s agricultural receipts, and the state is one of the top-five producers of milk, cottage cheese and sour cream, according to the New York Farm Bureau. A recent boom in Greek yogurt consumption will also benefit New York, with two of its largest producers, Chobani and Fage, based here.
So dairy farming seems to be making a comeback, albeit an uneven one. After three years of a steady or increasing number of farms in New York, the number dropped in 2010. With many farms forgoing needed improvements or selling parcels of land to make ends meet, there is room for the government to spend money saved on corrections to promote dairy.
We can spend the money we save by closing more prisons. In a trend reversing the explosive 500 percent rise in people incarcerated between 1970 and 2000, the last decade has seen New York State’s prison population decrease by 22 percent. Gov. Andrew Cuomo shuttered seven prisons in 2011. That is a huge savings for all New Yorkers during these tight budgetary times. $184 million, to be exact. There are still more prisons than we need, and we still have a long way to go to get to our pre-1970 levels, but the trend is encouraging.
Milk Not Jails is building an economic alternative to the prison industry. We are a dairy marketing and distribution co-operative and we are a political campaign growing the alliance between criminal justice reformers and dairy farmers.
In May, we are launching a new line of dairy products in New York City. We will be selling milk, yogurt and butter from local, family-owned farms that have signed on to our political agenda of fewer prisons and more farms. Our distribution and marketing cooperative is worker-owned and, come May, will be staffed by formerly incarcerated drivers and distribution coordinators.
The products will be available first through CSAs (community supported agriculture), and then at coffee shops and day care centers. We’re talking to about 30 CSAs from across the city, mostly Brooklyn and Manhattan, and will finalize our deals with them before the CSA season starts in May.
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. We push our state elected officials to increase the amount of New York milk and food in our schools, reform parole policy, end dairy-industry monopolies and stop marijuana arrests that target blacks and Latinos.
We are doing this work to correct decisions made over the last four decades. Starting in the 1970s, prison boosters and some rural legislators said correctional officer jobs, construction jobs and government spending related to new prisons would make correctional facilities an economic boon for rural towns like Attica, where Casey Dairy is located.
The state budget reflected this boosterism. New York built 52 new prisons between 1970 and 2000, and, due mostly to tough new drug sentencing laws, the state’s prison population exploded during that time. The long-term infrastructure costs and stigma of hosting a prison, however, meant that the benefits never materialized for small towns.
Each dollar our state spent imprisoning people during the last 40 years was a dollar it could have given to the farm next door. As a result, dairy farmers suffered. Nationally, there were 650,000 dairy farms in 1970 and today there are only 54,000. Encouraging dairy growth is necessary for rural New York.
It is true that closing prisons will mean lost jobs for correctional officers, people the dairy farmer Casimer Trybuskiewicz knows as neighbors and former schoolmates.
“I went to school in Attica,” he said. “So, of course, the people I meet and my neighbors are people who work there.”
But while closing Attica Prison and Wyoming Correctional Facility might increase unemployment in the area, that does not justify locking so many people up.
“I hope for some kind of prison reform. To throw these young people in jail for 20 to 25 years for things like pot possession,” said Trybuskiewicz. “It doesn’t seem cost efficient. Maybe you could achieve the same ends a different way.”
Cuomo agrees. He has stated in each of his State of the State addresses that, “an incarceration program is not a jobs program.”
Money into the dairy farms multiplies into other sectors in a way that prison spending does not. Dairy processing and distribution creates jobs, and small towns known for farm-fresh butter and milk attract more tourists than being known for caging people.
Milk and jails aren’t just connected by the state budget and by geographic proximity, of course. People who live in cities drink milk. In some neighborhoods it’s easier to get milk duds than local milk. Milk Not Jails is trying to change that.