Neftali Thomas Diaz swears he's done with Rikers Island.
After being locked up twice at the notorious New York City jail for stealing a credit card and violating parole, Diaz entered a private jobs program. Once he's back on his feet with a paycheck, Diaz says, "I know I'm not ever going back there — ever."
New York City is betting that Diaz and other low-level offenders like him are right about the salvation in second-chance employment.
Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city will spend $10 million a year on a "jails to jobs" initiative that will guarantee all Rikers inmates serving sentences of a year or less a chance at short-term employment once they do their time. The jobs will last up to eight weeks, with hourly wages covered by taxpayer money rather than coming out of the pocket of the employers.
The program, expected to be in place by the end of the year, is part of a broader effort to drive down the city's inmate population to the point where the city could build new, smaller jails to replace Rikers. The shutdown of one of the nation's largest jails could take years, so the mayor is pitching shorter-term remedies to ease the chronic violence and corruption at the sprawling facility.
Supporters say transitional jobs — kitchen, construction and other mostly menial work paying minimum wage — are a good investment because research shows that inmates who get them would be less likely to break the law again and go back to Rikers, where the costs of housing each prisoner can top $200,000 a year.
The economics make it "in everyone's interest to do this because otherwise they pay in the end," said supporter Martin Horn, a Department of Correction commissioner under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But the plan has come under fire by critics that include another former city jails boss, Bernard Kerik, who served his own prison term for tax fraud and lying to the White House during his vetting process for Homeland Security secretary. He says any new spending on rehabilitation should go to existing behind-bars programs offering high school educations and vocational training.
The jobs plan is "like giving money away" and "a feel-good approach that does nothing to fix the problem," Kerik said.
Another vocal opponent, former police detective and mayoral candidate Bo Dietl, puts it even more bluntly: "Why should we be rewarding people who commit crimes? I don't get that."
At the Fortune Society — one of the social service nonprofits expected to partner with the city on the plan and a sponsor of Diaz — the mission is proving the critics wrong by training former state prison and jail inmates on how to land and keep jobs. Part of the focus is on winning the trust of employers who risk hiring criminals trying to go straight, said Stanley Richards, an ex-convict who serves as the organization's executive vice president.
"It can be a tough sell," Richards said. "We're dealing with stereotypes of the formerly incarcerated. So what we're saying to employers is, 'We're concerned about your business, because we're helping to build new lives.'"
Though the Fortune Society sees some clients drop out and drift away, many manage to break out the cycle of recidivism. Some have held down steady employment at a large commercial kitchen in Queens shared by caterers and bakers.
"In the food industry, they want to know if you can cut 50 potatoes in five minutes, not whether you served time," said Seth Bornstein, who runs the facility as part of the Queens Economic Development Corporation. "A few of them are less reliable than others, but no more than the general population."
The 28-year-old Diaz is on his third strike. After serving time for his initial 2014 arrest, he violated his parole and was sent back to Rikers for another three months before being released again on May 17. So he says he understands "why people would say, 'He had his chance and he blew it.'"
But, after confronting drug and emotional problems, he insists he's ready to "have my mind occupied with something productive."
The starting point is noon Monday, the time he's supposed to punch the clock for a paid internship with a firm that provides support services for the city's non-emergency 311 hotline. He plans to be there an hour early.
"I'm free right now," he said. "So I want to keep it like that."