René transforms the prison system, from a repressive system to a system that provides opportunities. René considers the early reintegration and rehabilitation of women prisoners starting with the acquisition of skills to develop their lives independently and without relapsing, under a social business model for financial self-sustainability and productive reintegration while women serve their sentence, and ensuring sustenance after leaving prison.
The New Idea
René created a Social Enterprise model where women prisoners are partners. This way, he turns prisons into production centers that improve the quality of life and generate a number of benefits for prisoners, their families and the penitentiary center (medical and psychological health and economic compensation). This way he strengthened the development of the families of women prisoners as an emotional grip that facilitates the reintegration process.
René effectively prevents crime recurrence, creates productive capacities and develops psychological techniques for personal wellness that through work, allows women prisoners to have a new positive connection with the outside world. Not only production keeps them busy, but it gives them a meaning of life, human growth and empowerment. The developed activities and tasks at the penitentiary center by women emerge according to their own needs and abilities.
René differs from other initiatives of social and labor reinsertion of prisoners since it eliminates welfarism. René went beyond the traditional prison training, since social reintegration begins in prison, and empowers not only these women but also their family members who also receive economic benefits. René creates an innovative model of containment and continuity, which restores the rights to work, family, health where inmates, from prison, are already productive, and not satisfied with this, René guarantees that it continues this way when released. René has given the model "Freedom Bread" to the Penitentiary Regime -main public entity of the prisons in Bolivia- and a commitment to support René in its replication in other prisons was created, which ensures the systemic change that could also be replicated in Latin America.
In Bolivia there are 15,200 convicts in Bolivian prisons; in penitentiary centers that do not have enough resources to keep the appropriate conditions of health and wellness. Inmates do not have guaranteed their rights to health care, nor have the appropriate facilities for hygiene and habitat. They do not even have conditioned beds or bathrooms, eating or cleaning appliances, not even common areas for recreation. 80% of the inmates are in preventive quality and, in average, must wait more than 5 years to obtain a final verdict. Women prisoners are the most affected. There are 9 women's prisons throughout Bolivia, where about 1,500 women, in addition to the inhumane living conditions, suffer society’s stigma and the abandonment of their own families. Without resources or support, more than 70% of the inmates cannot even afford the services of a lawyer.
More than half of the detainees are repeat offenders, which means that of 10 inmates, 5 return to prison. Prison laws in Bolivia (Law 2298) approach rehabilitation and social reintegration in a totally superficial way and do not have the strategies to strengthen the capacities of prisoners. Traditional rehabilitation programs do not take into account the needs of prisoners, or the possibility that even inmates can positively contribute to society. Ex-convicts, and especially women, are rejected and have no access to formal employment opportunities, which leads them to continue a life of crime either for leisure or need for themselves and their families.
9 out of 10 female prisoners live in situations of extreme poverty, have native ancestry and have suffered throughout their life stories of cruel abuses of domestic violence by their relatives or spouses. And the majority have faced experiences with drug and alcohol abuse. The average number of an inmate’s family members is of 5 people, and usually women are the financial providers, even when they have not finished school, lack employment opportunities not have a job that allows them to earn an income (70% of detainees lack high school). Most women prisoners are charged for drug trafficking (75% of female prisoners) followed, secondly, by scams. Very few are punished for murder. In Bolivia, it applies that for two days of work one day is reduced from the sentence, and even if it could generate value for the penitentiary center and for the inmate herself, there are cases where a woman weaves fine pieces of clothing and the next day she undoes them to re-make them and prove her productivity a situation that generates no benefit or help for anyone.
In Bolivia the prison system is the government’s area that receives less money. Prisoners live in a locked system that generates more violence and crime, and inmates deteriorate and improve their criminal skills. From a young age, René became involved with prison systems, first as a child deprived of freedom, and then sensitized by the situation he completed his internships as a psychologist at the Center for Maximum Security ‘Miraflores’-where prisoners with high sentences go-. There, he developed therapeutic, recreational activities, and innovated with celebrations such as Mother's Day, when he, himself, got gifts for inmates to give their mothers. Already in 2003 he decided to go further and formally created the organization SEVIDA (http://www.sevida.org/es/index.php). It has a staff of 8 people, 20 inmate volunteers and 29 volunteers outside the prison.
The formation of the Production Centers emerged both from his experience as well as a diagnosis he made of the strengths and weaknesses of the prison population’s conditions. From the analysis of the prisoners’ skills emerged as products to market fabric weaving and bakery, because 90% of the women are of ‘Aymara’ native ethnic, and for their culture fabric weaving is transcendental. And thus, was the starting point to help them generate income and create a prison as a social enterprise which is a model of sustainability and empowerment. René, besides focusing on the situation inside the prisons, gave continuity and articulates women who have already been released.
René began his pilot in the ‘Obrajes’ prison, where 65% of the female prison population of Bolivia is being held: 250 women and 100 children -children of inmates who can, by law, stay with them until the age of 14-. Despite the high number of incarcerated, the prison, before René’s intervention, had only 1 general doctor and 1 psychologist. The Social Work area of the prison was devoted to isolated actions and without impact strategies such as finding discounts in hospital treatments for any woman in serious condition or the approval of informal sales, by some inmates, of food or services such as laundry or phone calls meaning, activities without sufficient income generation much less self-sustaining. All this happened in an environment where the guards worked under a coercive atmosphere, with sanctions and rules that were not applied, but where the abuse of power prevailed, the traffic of influence and corruption.
Thanks to René’s model there is a radical change in the prison atmosphere, and its results have been well appreciated even by the government sector in meetings. The treatment of women towards their children also improves constantly due to the emotional stability that will strengthen family ties. It is very obvious that security personnel have a more positive concept of prisoners, and have a pleasant and respectful treatment. At the ‘Obrajes’ Prison a kindergarten for children inside the prison was built, and today works as a formal educational unit. Additionally, the shower area was refurbished to improve health conditions of the inmates, and it was possible to impart various empowerment programs to women in women's prisons in the city of La Paz. The bedrooms of women's prisons in the city of La Paz were refurbished and now the inmates and their children have mattresses and cots. Dental offices were consolidated in the prisons with all the corresponding equipment for proper attention to women. Infirmaries were built in the women's prisons so that it can house the frail people. And the ‘Obrajes’ prison laundry room was remodeled so inmates can have better internal health and hygiene conditions.
Thanks to René’s model, the association has a monthly income of between $1000 and $1500. Of these, 25% goes to raw materials, 25% women’s income, 30% is reinvested in benefits for the penitentiary center and 20% for product marketing. It uses the catalog sales strategy, and family and volunteers work as vendors and earn a percentage of their sales. Their methodology counts with a personal income and benefits tracking of each of the inmates since the first day they start working in the Social Enterprise. For every 2 days of work or study, women reduce 1 day of their sentence. A teacher hired by SEVIDA, assists, twice a week, in the prison’s church, 40 women in teaching new weaving techniques. Each week an average of 10 women, depending on the new inmates’ income, are incorporated. In addition, they are continuously trained in bakery. When women are released, René gives them a certificate for the hours of training and work on weaving or bakery that also works as a mechanism for reducing years of their sentences. And they voluntarily provide their personal data and René makes personalized monitoring to continue in the sale of tissues catalog or resale of bread, according to their interests. There have also been cases of women that when they go free they undertake a business of their own or get employed.
Daysi Patzi Paz is one of the 1,500 women who René has benefited with his project. After being imprisoned for 11 months at the ‘Obrajes’ prison, where she took bakery and weaving workshops, she was released and will be reunited with her two daughters aged 9 and 10. Daysi from Santa Cruz will be able to support her family with dignity and with her income as a sweater, jackets and blouses manufacturer woven of alpaca for the OUT brand -weaving line brand created by René for the prison- which expresses being outside bars, being free through weaving. In addition to a game of words opposed to the term "in" used as something banal that is fashionable.
The prisons’ model as René’s social enterprises has the institutional support of the General Office of the Penitentiary Regime in Bolivia. And it is currently in conversations with the government sector to replicate in other penitentiary centers in Bolivia. Only a previous diagnosis of prison culture is needed detecting interests and needs of each center so the social enterprise model can be applied. In addition, René has strategic partners such as the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), who have supported with logistics, equipment, technical and economic investment. And thanks to the results obtained they are committed to continue working with the prison population.
It should be noted that, René has held talks with other entrepreneurs in Peru to replicate his model in womens’ prisons, and in 2015 he implemented, with the support of Ashoka Fellow Salomon Raydán, strategies of microfinance for the sustainability of the Association of women producers of their prison. The Ashoka Fellows’ network will allow René to strengthen the replica of his model because, in addition to social contributions, it will have a contact with specific knowledge of the prison situation in each country and thus it may have an effective diagnosis and agreements with the different Ministries of the Penitentiary Regime.
René envisions that his model contributes to improving and strengthening the quality of life of prisoners throughout Latin America. He hopes to achieve true rehabilitation and social reintegration for crime prevention, ranging from economic empowerment, emotional health and human rights of the people in prisons. It will work, specifically, on strengthening the law for prisoners to include issues as, the right to health, work, sport, having recreational areas and to legal assistance.
When René was a teenager he experienced the difficulties of having his father in prison, living in deplorable conditions. After serving a 5-yearsentence in the San Pedro prison (La Paz), René’s father, through honest work, was able to recover himself economically and support his family, even when he suffered many economic, emotional and social stigma difficulties for being an ex-convict. This is how René’s empathy and sensitivity towards prisoners started a young age and his main source of motivation was the story of his father’s social reintegration, who has since died.
At the age of 23 René graduated in psychology. The first time René worked with prisoners was during his first professional practices in the ‘Miraflores’ prison. He generated bonds of trust, after promoting for the first time in the history of the prison celebrations and integration between inmates and their families. This way he began individual and group therapies which he continued voluntarily after ending his internship. With his work he inspired other 6 volunteer psychologists to join the cause.
After 3 years as a volunteer psychologist in several prisons throughout Bolivia (La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz), René observed the shortcomings in prisons and in 2003 created his organization Seed of Life to solve from the root inhuman living conditions of prisoners. He articulated volunteer psychologists, prisoners and empowered family members and began to develop projects in the area of education, health and infrastructure that continues today. In 2005, the Ministry of Government summoned him to be the psychologist of the ‘Miraflores’ prison Center, and concluded that from the public sector the process is slow and bureaucratic, rather than empowering prisoners or implementing solutions and innovations, thus, putting obstacles on new initiatives. So he decided to devote 100% to his organization, do a more effective work and provide a role model.
To know in depth without prejudice or stigmas the situation of prisoners in Bolivia and their leadership and entrepreneurship skills, René is considered an expert in the area of prisoners’ human rights, and thanks to this he has been a consultant and advisor in different initiatives of the civil society and government institutions. Such is the case of the alliance he had with the organization Citizens Rights Training (CDC) of Bolivia, which trains inmates, with whom René shared tools and methodologies on his prison experience.