Lauren Diaz Arias

This description of Lauren Diaz Arias's work was prepared when Lauren Diaz Arias was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Lauren Diaz aims to transform prisons in Costa Rica into true rehabilitation centers, as they are originally meant to be, and with this, empower inmates, decrease recidivism and develop a more empathic society that understands and reintegrates ex-convicts, keeping them away from crime.

The New Idea

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”.

The Problem

During 2013, crime in Costa Rica increased by 26% and nearly 11,000 people were sentenced to prison. Of those, more than 2,000were recidivists, equivalent to 18% of people in one year leaving and returning to prison. The majority of people sentenced to prison in Costa Rica are guilty of committing petty crimes, such as small thefts and small scale drug trade, crimes directly related to poverty, and lack of economic opportunities.

These numbers indicate that the Costa Rican penal system, asin most Central American countries, lacks effective mechanisms for societal reintegration; convicts leave prison with no skills and more involved in crime than when they entered. The problem has been difficult to deal with as the responsibility has only been in the hands of the State and resources are only used to contain, not to rehabilitate. So far, the only response by the government has been the construction of new facilities, which in no way solves the issue. The prison system is receiving more inmates that it can handle, resulting in overpopulation. Overcrowding causes spikes in violence and decreases the prevalence of programs directed to rehabilitation of prisoners, because of lack of funds and space.

With no way to prepare for reintegration into society from inside prisons, recidivism is increasing. It is alsois linked to the inability of prisoners to get a job upon their release, both from employer discrimination and a lack of development of useful skills during their time in prison. Employers require any job applicant to show their police record in the application, and people who have been in prison, regardless ofthe severity of their crime, face serious discrimination and are most likely to get rejected. Society sees convicts for their criminal history and excludes them, making it more difficult to reintegrate into society. In turn,this ignites a vicious cycle that makes crime the only economic option for many.

Supreme Court of Justice of Costa Rica has recognized the hostile environment that imposes the risk of relapse on the convict after they complete their sentence. Under this frame, there are education programs and agreements set forth by the Ministry of Justice and Peace with diverse organizations to give convicts technical skills. However, once they have acquired these technical or artistic skills, they are often unable to turn them into a viablejob. These programs commercialize productsmade by inmates, but they do not offer employment opportunities upon their release, thereby leaving the convicts vulnerable to unemployment or turningback to crime.

Similar issues can be found throughout Mexico and Central America: criminalization of poverty, high rates of recidivism, and discrimination against convicts. The solutions available in the region are also similar to those that have been proposed in Costa Rica -- they do not offer the convict a real economic opportunity upon release and do not engage society or government to solve the problem from the root.

The Strategy

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.

The Person

Since she was a child, Lauren always wanted to help others and felt that the conscience of all people obligated them to help society. She was born in Guanacaste, a rural region of Costa Rica where the primary activity is farming, to a family with scarce economic opportunities. When she was 15, even living in a rural zone almost 200 km away from the capital, San José, she was accepted into the Costa Rican Humanistic College, where she was able to finish high school in a university environment and learn the importance of acting, creating, and being different. She studied with the help of a government scholarship, which provided a living stipend, but as this was not enough to support herself she decided to undertake two simultaneous majors, Law and Business Administration, so that she could get two stipends and continue in university. Lauren had to have good grades to keep her scholarship for college, and was also required to complete monthly “hours of collaboration” for the university. However, she always felt that these hours were being poorly spent, given that they wasted a lot of labor and did not create a real benefit for society. Based on her experience, Lauren sought other options that would have more impact.

Her first encounter with prisons was through a professor who invited her to visit a penitentiary center. There, she understood that most inmates were people like her, who had committed crimes because of the lack of economic opportunities. She heard the story of one man who was in prison for the second time for stealing a cell phone to feed his young brother. After that experience, she continued to encounter the issues faced by convicts. One day, she was at the bus station and a man was asking for money to buy his ticket to get back home -- he had just been released from prison that day and had no way of getting there. Lauren noticed how everyone ignored and even insulted the man, and she understood the complexity of his situation and the need for a more empathetic society. Sometime later, she met Jorge, an entrepreneur and ex - convict who had set up a leather goods microenterprise upon his release from prison as he found it impossible to find a job. Lauren continued to visit prisons, to learn more about the issues, and to understand the system that triggered them.

Because of these experiences, Lauren decided to focus on creating a better option for convicts, and one that would also include other stakeholders. In 2011, at 21 years-old, she started the foundation of what would becomeNueva Oportunidad. One year later,and with seed capital from Ashoka Youth Venture and the inspiration of the Youth Social Entrepreneurship Summit, she was able to begin operations. Since then, Nueva Oportunidad has won numerous awards including the UNA Entrepreneurs Fair in May 2011, TIC America in 2012, YoCreo award in 2012, Best Elevator Pitch from the Social Innovation Program for the Development of Youth, and the Champions of Innovation in 2013.