Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Matt Green

Updated on May 14 at 5:05 p.m.

Four of Queens’ City Council representatives have introduced a bill that could be crucial to helping former inmates rejoin society when they’re released from prison.

Introduced at a Council meeting on May 9, the bill sponsored by City Council members Robert Holden, Donovan Richards, Adrienne Adams and I. Daneek Miller would require the Department of Corrections (DOC) to inform inmates of the amount of money remaining in their commissary accounts within 72 hours prior to their release and give them clear instructions on how to get reimbursed.

The DOC would then be required to return any funds remaining in an inmate’s account within 60 days of the inmate’s release.

According to Richards’ office, the bill came in response to a Daily News article that revealed that former inmates have left roughly $3.5 million in their commissary accounts, and nothing is done to actively help them reclaim it. If the funds are not claimed within 120 days after release, they are transferred to an NYPD fund that can only be accessed by returning to a DOC facility that has a cashier window.

“Frankly, I don’t believe that money is DOC’s to take,” said Holden, a member of the Committee on Criminal Justice. “I’d like to think putting that money in the pockets of released inmates may, in some small way, help set them up for success instead of failure when they leave the jails.”

In many cases, inmates don’t know how much money they have on their accounts or if they’re allowed to be reimbursed at all, and increasing awareness about that could prove to be the most important part of this bill.

“As a city, we should make every effort to return commissary funds just like the return of any unclaimed funds,” Adams said. “This money rightfully belongs to them, and we want to ensure their chance to claim it.”

The commissary, a store inside of a prison with hygiene items, snacks, writing utensils and other basic goods, is one of the few small privileges inmates have while behind bars. The money in each commissary fund is typically sent by family members or friends, and Richards, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, said that it’s often very difficult for them to come up with money to help the inmates in the first place.

“Families of those who are incarcerated often scrape together anything they can provide for their loved ones to make their time more manageable, which makes returning these funds so critical to reintegration,” Richards said. “The least the DOC can do is make people aware of the funds they have left and allow for an easier way to access them other than asking the person to return to a DOC facility that would likely bring back traumatizing memories from their experience.”

The proposed bill would also require the DOC to release an annual report to the Council that shows the total amount of funds remaining in all accounts of former inmates who are no longer incarcerated.

Miller added that not providing an easy way to reimburse former inmates is a sign of more deep-rooted problems with incarceration.

“The failure to refund them upon release is reflective of the fundamental disregard for individuals of color who often land on Rikers because they lack the means to post bail,” Miller said. “We must stay vigilant in advocating for criminal justice reform at every level, and Introduction 903 rightly addresses this overlooked issue.”


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