What do milk and jails have to do with each other? Check out this short video to find out!
New York State’s prison system is huge. The Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) is the state’s largest state agency with an annual budget of $2.5 billion and 31,000 staff across the state. However, despite the state’s clear investment in the prison system, it is largely ineffective. Numerous studies throughout the years have shown that poverty is a major cause of crime, and that education reduces recidivism. However, New York’s prison system has slashed its budget for educational and vocational training, and, additionally, people coming out of the prison system face severe barriers in accessing education and jobs when returning to their communities. Furthermore, while 75 percent of people in prison are from seven neighborhoods in New York City, 90 percent of the prisons are located upstate in rural areas, many up to eight hours away from home. The state continues to maintain these prisons far from prison families, despite evidence that keeping close ties to one’s community decreases recidivism. In addition to the prison system being ineffective and too large, it is also racist. A grossly disproportionate number of Black and Latino individuals are locked up in New York State’s prisons. While the majority of drug users and sellers in the state are white, 90 percent of people locked up for drug offenses are Black and Latino.
More effective, less costly, and less racist policies have been identified by politicians, think tanks, community-based organizations and economists, yet politicians representing towns where the prisons are located have fiercely opposed these reforms. Their opposition is rooted in their protection of prison guard jobs in their communities. These politicians—largely Republicans—have made criminal justice policy a party issue.
Meanwhile, rural upstate districts where prisons tend to be housed are generally economically depressed and geographically isolated. These communities had previously thrived because of their locations on important trade routes. The development of the Erie Canal and other water routes, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Hudson River, made these communities strategic places for industry to develop. Raw materials and finished products were constantly passing through these trade routes—from the Mid-West to the Northeast, from rural areas to population centers. Agriculture, specifically the dairy industry, took root in rural areas of the state.
However, over the past fifty years international, federal, and state policies have changed the economic landscape of many of these towns. Federal programs to promote the development of the auto industry and the highway system transformed cargo transport around the country. Canals and the freight lines that followed them became under-used, and many were eventually decommissioned. Many of New York’s towns and cities became geographically obsolete. Neoliberal trade policies since the 1970s create better opportunities for manufacturers, and many factories moved out of state and overseas where they could find cheaper labor and tax breaks. Lastly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “get big or get out” philosophy since the 1950s created programs to support farmers where consolidation and industrialization where rewarded, and small, family farms found it difficult to survive.
The economic devastation of upstate, rural New York has been consistent over the past fifty years, and the state government has created no successful programs to change the course. Instead, the government has allowed the communities to become dependent on public sector jobs, and this dynamic has created a dysfunctional relationship between criminal justice policy and economic stability. A bloated, racist, ineffective prison system is being used as a stand in for economic development policy in the counties where prisons are located. This dysfunction is having a detrimental impact on urban communities, where people are being targeted by the criminal justice system, and on rural communities, where politicians are ignoring the signs of economic devastation.