Milk Not Jails turns two. Here, we learn how it began.

16Apr12

In March 2010, Lauren Melodia was finishing a cold winter in a rural New York prison town.  She had moved upstate with the ambitious plan of organizing residents to end the town’s economic dependence on incarceration.  It was not going well.

Founder Lauren Melodia (left) and early supporter Dara Greenwald (right) serve up some vanilla at the the ice cream social in Syracuse, New York, Milk Not Jails’ first.

“I thought my community development experience and my dedication would convince people to work with me,” Melodia says, “but I couldn’t get the town planner to work with me, because he felt my funding source – George Soros’ Open Society Foundation (OSF) – was too liberal.

Before relocating to a prison town in upstate New York, Melodia had spent four years organizing for criminal justice reform with prison families and another year organizing for community development with public housing residents.  She’d played a large role in a movement to end the high cost prison families had to pay to receive calls from their loved ones inside.  The Campaign for Telephone Justice was victorious in 2009, and while Melodia was ecstatic about the victory she felt it was just one small drop in a bucket of criminal justice reform.

Then, as now, Republicans controlled the State Senate and they voted as a block to oppose drug sentencing reform, alternatives to incarceration, and prison closures.  They feared that such reforms would cost their districts jobs and revenue.  The Campaign for Telephone Justice had tremendous difficulty getting a Republican to sponsor its bill – the only way to move anything through the Senate Crime Committee.  The strategizing to galvanize rural politicians to support the Campaign for Telephone Justice’s bill made Melodia think, “we have to figure out how to make it easier to win or demands.  The Campaign for Telephone Justice took three years.  How can we ask for more? And make changes faster?”

Melodia was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship from OSF with the plan to find new strategies to build rural support for criminal justice reform.  She started her fellowship with a bike trip through the Adirondacks, one of the country’s largest public parks that is also home to 10 prisons.  “Seeing the region at such a slow pace, one really gets a sense of its potential.  There are tons of beautiful lakes and forest.  But the rest of the Adirondacks is spotted with GMO corn fields, golf courses, and prisons.”

She met with community groups, Industrial Development Agencies, and County Chambers of Commerce in every district where there was at least one prison.  And she eventually relocated to one town, which was home to two prisons.  “If prisons were central to the economy in these communities, then I wanted to figure out the right way to start the conversation of transitioning out of the prison economy.”  As she struggled to get meetings and start conversations, Melodia was still in touch with her allies downstate.  She realized that her skills didn’t get her much traction in rural areas, but she had access to another source of power: downstate purchasing power.

The idea for Milk Not Jails was born.  When the group that would become the New York State Prisoners Justice Network announced a conference in Albany in March 2010, Melodia quickly printed up quarter-sheet fact fliers declaring “milk not jails.”

Soon after that Melodia was approached by her good friend Dara Greenwald, who was working on Spectres of Liberty, a month of events and activities looking at the history and future of abolitionism in Syracuse, New York.  Dara invited Melodia to host a Milk Not Jails ice cream social as part of Spectres of Liberty.  “Dara understood milk not jails before anyone else did.  Dara intensely studied social movements and had more passion for them – and their successes and failures and absurdity – than anyone I know.  She understood the brilliance of mobilizing people with the idea that you can change the prison system by eating more ice cream.  In political organizing you have to be smart and dare to be fun, too, and it was awesome to pull together the first ice cream social with Dara.”

Melodia also invited Marion Rodriguez, a long-time prison families organizer who lives in Syracuse, to co-organize the event.  “Marion is one of the best organizers I know, and she turned people out for the ice cream social.”  Ever since, Milk Not Jails has been putting on socials, lobbying for more farms and fewer prisons, and building its dairy distribution start-up.  Stay tuned for many more years of growth.

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