Former detainees at Rikers Island and other city lockups have left a total of $4.2 million in commissary accounts waiting to be claimed — a figure on the rise despite new legislation requiring jail officials to do more to refund the money.
The unclaimed millions are tied to 319,493 commissary accounts as of May 1, according to the Department of Correction’s first report on the matter. Multiple deposits may be connected to people detained more than once, but the huge number of unclaimed accounts indicates that the number of detainees eligible for refunds is in the thousands.
Advocates for incarcerated people have long urged jail officials to do more to give the money back to a mostly low-income population, where every dollar can make a difference.
“It breaks my heart to know that families have sacrificed to get their money to the loved ones who are behind bars,” said JoAnne Page, president and CEO of The Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps the formerly incarcerated. “And that money is lost to the individual and to the family.”
Annais Morales, a Department of Correction spokesperson, declined to comment — aside from sending a link to the one-page report, which was mandated by a City Council law in 2021. The law requires the agency to annually detail the unclaimed figure and what it is doing to return the money.
The report stated that the department had informed incarcerated people through fliers that they are eligible to “immediately receive up to $200 in cash” when they leave custody.
Correction officials for years have struggled to return the money to people who are often homeless or have moved to new addresses. They also note that some detainees are released directly from court or a hospital.
But critics contend the increasing pot of unclaimed funds is just another example of the department’s own management failures.
The department’s struggle to return the funds comes as a possible federal third-party takeover looms after years of dysfunction behind bars.
The latest update comes after THE CITY reported that the department had turned over the commissary system, via a no-bid contract, to the privately owned Keefe Group, which has been criticized across the country for overcharging incarcerated people. An investigation by THE CITY found that Keefe-operated commissaries on Rikers charged more than permitted for multiple items such as Cheerios, toothpaste and chicken breasts.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who was the lead sponsor of the legislation while he served in the City Council, said the department’s “mishandling” of the unused commissary money is one of the many reasons he supports a takeover by a federal receiver.
“You can’t rehabilitate Rikers Island. It needs to be blown up,” Richards told THE CITY.
Speaking of the million in unclaimed funds, Dana Wax, who was chief of staff to former Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, said, “The fact that this problem is persisting, and it’s millions of dollars that belong to people who used to be in custody … is embarrassing.”
No Going Back
Former detainees can get their money back in person at the department’s cashier windows at the entrance of Rikers or the Vernon C. Bain Center jail barge. They can also give the department an address to receive a check by mail.
During the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Wax and other jail officials tried to persuade another city agency, or the Public Advocate, to host borough-based events where formerly incarcerated people could get their money back without having to return to Rikers.
Jail officials at the time also suggested allowing detainees to vote on using money that remained unclaimed for two years to finance improvements like new gym equipment.
“Prior to this administration, the group working on this bill was trying to find a solution that would connect people with their money because we knew the money was sitting there doing nothing,” Wax said. “And what this report says is that this administration is not making this a priority, and is not trying to stretch themselves to support people who are leaving jail.”
Few formerly incarcerated people want to go back to Rikers to collect the money, Richards added.
“Who in hell would want to go back to Rikers to get the funds,” he said. “Once you leave there that’s it.”
“After you deal with the horrors of Rikers Island,” he continued, “even I would say, just keep it.”