Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The Nueva Oportunidad strategy is based on working with all primary actors in the sector: inmates, prison officers, society, and government officials. By recognizing the role of each one of these actors, and understanding how to involve each of them in the solution, Lauren increases the potential for systemic change.
At the core of the model is the rehabilitation program that Nueva Oportunidad designed and has successfully piloted. The model aims to create micro-enterprises owned and led by the inmates, offering a viable opportunity of self - employment upon their release and preventing recidivism. This program has various steps, starting with a diagnosis and pre-selection led by the organization and prison officers. Convicts who are completing sentences for small crimes (mostly crimes against property and small scale drug trade), are close to their release date, and have a good track record on behavior within the prison are chosen to participate. The Nueva Oportunidad model is described to this group, and all who are interested are then invited to present a business idea. Those who present viable ideas that could result in a real business opportunity (as opposed to, for example, writing a book) are then invited to pitch their idea to a board that selects the best 20 each year.
These 20 inmates go on to participate in 30 sessions aimed at incubating their business idea.
12 of these workshops cover the subjects of entrepreneurship and human development, and the other 18 attend to the development of the business: market research, financial viability, legal structure, social and environmental impact, the canvas business model, and other relevant themes. These sessions are led by professional volunteers who are business professionals, university students, and social entrepreneurs. This gives a hands-on approach, promotes collaboration between volunteers and prisoners, and reduces discrimination.
After the incubation process, Nueva Oportunidad presents the business ideas to angel investors and business plan competitions in order to get seed funding for the enterprises. Then, the organization accompanies the new entrepreneurs with the actual establishment of their new business. All the steps of the Nueva Oportunidad program include both the development of human talent as well as values. A psychologist attends monthly individual clinical sessions for every entrepreneur. The new entrepreneur has the option to return to the organization after their business has taken off to continue to receive accounting, legal, administrative, and financial services; these services are available at a price, but are much less expensive than the market value.
This model, apart from offering real opportunities to convicts, gives Nueva Oportunidad the resources and proof they need to engage the other actors in the ecosystem. They engage the prison staff in all parts of the process, showing behavioral improvement in the participants and the power of a strong rehabilitation program. Officers in San Rafael prison, where the pilot was implemented, have become champions for the program, and are now in their second year of involvement. They have granted furlough to participants to go to activities at the university, a sign of increased trust among the staff and inmates. The warden of San Rafael is now part of the board of Nueva Oportunidad.
In order to address the discrimination and lack of understanding toward prisoners and the prison system in society, Nueva Oportunidad recruits volunteers to participate as mentors in the program. In this space, volunteers get to know the inmates and their crimes and understand how they were driven into them. They understand see that inmates are regular people just like them, and this creates a sense of empathy that they can take back to their families and workplaces. Nueva Oportunidad also has media campaigns to raise awareness about the problems in the penal system and portray the stories of the entrepreneurs.
Lastly, Lauren works with the government to ensure that prisons revive their mission of being rehabilitation facilities and that poverty isn´t treated as crime. Since 2012, Lauren has focused on shaping public policies to change the way sentences are fulfilled in Costa Rica. To this end, Lauren has worked in various aspects; her dissertation thesis for her university degree was about the social and legal framework for the social reintegration of convicts, which consisted of identifying what had become the norm for social reintegration and proposing better alternatives. Lauren was invited to participate in the Penitentiary Technical Council, without the right to vote, but with the ability to voice her opinion in an important event in which professionals defined prison policies and formed a Justice and Peace commission to develop “Plan Rescate” (Rescue Plan), an initiative by the Citizen’s Action Party. She has met with the president of Costa Rica and the Minister of Justice to advise them on prison reform and show the financial savings and social impact that a nation - wide implementation of this program could have.
In 2013, the first year of operation, the Nueva Oportunidad program started with nine convicts, of whom seven continued the process and have now found their freedom; none have relapsed. Out of these successful cases, three rely on their business as their only source of income and the other four have found other jobs, with the help of Nueva Oportunidad, to sustain themselves while developing their businesses. For 2014, Nueva Oportunidad received 87 requests for businesses and began training in May. Lauren seeks to have 200 graduated entrepreneurs each year in at least eight penal centers, to be a pioneering organization in the field of reintegration, and lead in developing specialized businesses for one of the largest and most vulnerable populations.
Lauren seeks to expand and replicate her model using the first cohort of entrepreneurs as a reference and example of the validity of her methodology. Finally, based on the success achieved in the San Rafael Penal Center, Nueva Oportunidad will is already in conversation with other penal centers, planning to ultimately cover all 15 penitentiaries in the country. Once consolidated in Costa Rica, the model can be replicated in other countries in the region, adapting the methodology as necessary.
Nueva Oportunidad was founded in 2011. It has sustained itself through diverse sources of funding, such as donations from companies, participation in cooperatives and a partnership with the university which covers the salaries of the 6 employees. In addition, the initiative has plans to source income in the medium term through profits created from the entrepreneurial projects, from service costs to the entrepreneurs, and from the sale of the model to other prisons to the Ministry of Justice and Peace.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Lauren Diaz aims to revise the role of prisons in Costa Rica and how they work in the rehabilitation of prisoners, and to engage society outside prisons in a positive way in order to ensure ex-convicts´ successful reinsertion to society and to prevent recidivism. Through her organization, Nueva Oportunidad (New Opportunity), Lauren works across multiple levels in order to reform how prisons and society perceive prisoners, and what opportunities are offered to them.
Lauren´s approach is multi – tiered: First, Lauren works with prison staff, from directors to officers and trainers, to help them understand their role in the lives of inmates and increase the impact of the sentence. Second, Lauren has developed an integral program that offers prisoners with menial crimes and who are about to finish their sentence the opportunity to develop a business idea that will ensure a self-employment option upon their release, and at the same time, brings psychological and personal support. As a third step, Nueva Oportunidad works with society to stop the exclusion that ex-convicts face upon their release (that is a major contributor to recidivism), by raising awareness about the failures of the penal system, the contexts and stories of prisoners, and by offering spaces of collaboration. Lastly, Lauren works to change public policy and to ensure that the government understands and implements the social and economic incentives that make up an integral rehabilitation program.
Nueva Oportunidad´s innovation lies in the roles of these diverse actors in the solution and in actively involving each of them. Lauren is helping prisoners become entrepreneurs, and creating an adequate ecosystem to prevent them from going back to crime, but also to prevent poverty from driving people into crime and serving unjustified sentences. She proposes a change in the paradigm of serving a sentence, aiming for successful rehabilitation of prisoners facilitated by the prisons -- a purpose stated in article 51 of the penal code of Costa Rica: “The punishment of prison and measures of security will be fulfilled in the place and in a form that the law determines, ensuring the sentence is a rehabilitating experience”.