$3.5 million — that's how much money former inmates from Rikers Island and other city correction facilities have left behind in their commissary accounts over the years.
"It is easy to get arrested; it is hard to get out. It is easy to put money in; it is hard to get your money back," said Patrick Nathan, a formerly-incarcerated a man. "But Rikers is taking all of your money."
Inmates or their families put money into their commissary accounts so they can buy snacks and toiletries. But when they leave a city jail, they're supposed to get that money back by simply asking for it. Johnny Fogle said he spent time on Rikers years ago and couldn't get his commissary money back.
"I tried to get my money the day I was leaving, and it is always a story: 'The sergeant is not there, the captain is not around, the bookkeeper left for the day,'" Fogle said. "You wind up getting frustrated to the point that you just say, 'Forget it.'"
But a combined $3.5 million is a lot of money to just say "Forget about it." Now, city council members are introducing legislation to demand the correction department inform the council how much money is in the commissary account every year.
"We're talking about their money," City Councilwoman Adrienne Adams said. "We are talking about unclaimed funds that have to go back to the folks who actually put in these funds for commissary for a specific purpose."
NY1 reached out to the correction department and officials told us they are aware of the issue and they are going to take a close look at the city council legislation.
A spokesperson said, "People may end up giving some of their time to DOC [Department of Correction], but we definitely don't want their money."
The department said it will put up posters in jails to inform inmates how and when to get their money. That's usually going to a cashier on-sight. But money not collected after four months is turned over to an NYPD fund.
"What we are saying here is that we shouldn't be taking the formerly-incarcerated's money and repurposing it to anything which we have no knowledge of," City Councilman Donovan Richards said.
Former inmates say families use a PayPal machine at jails to put money into commissary accounts. They think the same machines should return the money.
"Just when you're leaving, you just go to PayPal and it kicks back whatever is left on your commissary," Fogle said. "Real simple. But the city likes to hold that money."
180,000 former inmates are still owed their money.
Former inmates can get their commissary money from cashier offices at correction department facilities. Unclaimed commissary funds become part of the Police Property Payable Fund after 120 days.
After that, inmates can claim their funds by calling the DOC Office of Constituent and Grievance Services (OCGS) at 718-546-1500 (available Monday to Friday from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM) or email ConstituentServices@doc.nyc.gov. You can also contact the agency by calling 311 (available 24 hours/7 days a week).