Elvira Alvarez Alá

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1996
Vida Nueva
This description of Elvira Alvarez Alá's work was prepared when Elvira Alvarez Alá was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Elvira Alvarez has developed and is now spreading a comprehensive, community-based model program to assist poor people in Bolivian prisons by hastening judicial procedures and generating new methods of rehabilitation.

The New Idea

In response to bottlenecks in Bolivia's justice system, where thousands of people are detained unjustly, Elvira Alvarez has developed a process to help those who have been abandoned in prison. Her innovative system includes the full participation of the prisoner and teaches family members, friends and a sponsor how to work together to provide the "human factor" necessary to move the judicial process along. This network of advocates interacts with the judicial bureaucracy and proposes a program of support for the prisoner that includes a plan for his or her rehabilitation. The law requires a rehabilitation program to be in place before a prisoner may be released; however, it does not provide rehabilitation measures mechanisms to assist in their creation. One of the distinctive features of Elvira's ombudsman-like model is that it creates from the bottom up the implementation structures that are needed to fill the gap between the law and the people who need to be able to use it. She has influenced judicial reform at the national level in Bolivia, and, by working with a network of interested organizations, she has been able to spread her model to other Latin American countries.

The Problem

Justice in Bolivia is often delayed. Prisoners remain incarcerated without being arraigned, tried or sentenced. After Tupac Amaru's group seized hostages in the Japanese embassy in Peru, late in 1996, its demands highlighted this very abuse, which is widespread in other Latin American countries as well as in Bolivia and causes serious violations of human rights. New laws to correct the problem in Bolivia have had little effect. Corruption and poverty are two contributing factors. Often there is a brisk trade in illegal drugs in the prisons, which the lawyers, judges and guards may be aware of or profit from. The prisoners most likely to be denied due process are the poorest. Most of them have no understanding of their human rights or the workings of the justice system and consequently feel hopeless. While they are in theory supplied with public defenders, their defense does not unfold on its own: it requires someone who understands the judicial system to act persistently on their behalf. However, because of shame and ignorance about how the system works, prisoners are often abandoned by their most promising advocates-families and friends-when they are arrested.
The requirements of the law are a challenge even to a prisoner who has help. In order to obtain bail he or she is required to muster a guarantee such as the title to a house or car. Most people do not know how or have the resources to do so. The law also requires the presentation of a rehabilitation program-including such evidence of character as a job-as a condition for release, but the government has developed no methods for rehabilitation. Often lawyers are too overburdened to help. Many of the prisoners fall through the cracks and end up staying in jail for months or years without resources to secure their freedom.

The Strategy

Elvira created a comprehensive set of interventions that fill in the cracks and motivate officials to expedite cases. The model she has developed addresses the fundamental questions of how to connect a prisoner with his or community, what an advocate should do, how to propose a rehabilitation system and carry it out, how to create support for a prisoner upon release and how a prisoner can secure work. Elvira visits the prisons in La Paz, where she works, and identifies prisoners who have served long terms without due process. She also has a network of religious people, lawyers, human rights workers and social workers who refer new prisoners to her for assistance. She has trained a team of volunteers who work with her; her group, though very real, has no name; she has no formal legal training. She has found that it aids her work as an ombudsman to maintain an informal stance outside the official system.
Elvira first visits the prisoners in the jail and finds out when and why they were detained and the names of their families, friends and lawyers. After a prisoner files a formal request that they work together, Elvira meets the lawyer to find ways in which people can assist with the formalities and procedures.
Elvira and other volunteers go wherever is needed, often out into the countryside, to contact family and friends and help relieve the shame and fear they feel over having a loved one in jail. They patiently work through the process and establish ways for the prisoner's people to visit and help secure his or her freedom.
The same team of volunteers coordinates the defense and monitors the justice process. They make appointments with the lawyer, judge, secretaries and other officials and make sure that the process proceeds. They find someone who will commit to being a personal guarantor or sponsor for the prisoner upon release, and when necessary they work to secure funds for bail. The family members, volunteers who work with Elvira, the guarantor and the prisoner all develop a rehabilitation program that the prisoner agrees to participate in after his or her release. Meanwhile, they create self-help groups among prisoners to develop productive activities with the aim of ensuring proof of character to help secure liberty and reintegrate with society. Elvira's integrated process of confronting the justice process led to 46 people being freed in its first ten months.
After the prisoner's release, rehabilitation support comes from individuals who have already been helped by Elvira's work and from organizations such as DIAKONIA, a Swedish group that provides funding, and SEAPAS, an international religious group that supplies some of Elvira's volunteers. Groups of ex-prisoners are formed to help one another adjust to their return to society and family. Small businesses have been set up to provide much-needed employment for prisoners, often the key for successful reintegration. Usually a prisoner begins the work while still in jail and continues upon release; one of the most successful enterprises has been the creation of prisoner art-porcelain floral centerpieces that are sold in fairs all over the country. Their work is currently being featured in an exposition in La Paz. A national show of handicrafts produced by ex-prisoners is planned for next year.
The national justice system has begun to respond to Elvira's reforms. Her style of advocacy is marked by a non-threatening quality, which has been an effective counterpoint to more confrontational strategies employed by human rights advocates. After a complaint has been lodged by someone else who has discovered an abuse, Elvira will be there, proffering to the embarrassed official the solutions he needs: the papers will be ready for signature, the plan for rehabilitation will be at hand. During 1996, a new Minister of Justice came into the office with a determination to implement the code of law and rid Bolivia's prisons of corruption. He has called upon Elvira to help, thus spreading her work to the national level.
A broad spectrum of parties is seeking to adopt the effectiveness of Elvira's work on behalf of prisoners. Human rights workers throughout Bolivia have engaged her to train advocates in other cities beyond La Paz, where her project began. She has also connected with prison reform groups from Peru, Cuba, Costa Rica and Chile.

The Person

Elvira has had an interest in human rights and social justice since she was a very young child, and she has always been a fighter. Her father owned a farm where she worked alongside her mother. When she was six years old, she noticed that the workers on the farm were being abused by her father. They were treated like slaves. One escaped and was hunted down by dogs, whipped and hung by chains in the basement. Elvira got the keys and freed the man. Her father never spoke to her again, and she was taken away from her family to live in La Paz. As a young mother Elvira lived in the Yungas, a lowland area in northern Bolivia. Her youngest child died there because local doctors wouldn't care for her if her family couldn't pay. Elvira determined to develop affordable public health clinics so that other families would not experience this type of tragedy.
In 1989, Elvira and her husband were working with a nongovernmental organization dedicated to nutrition, health education and creating health care centers in an area where local miners sold their gold to an international mining corporation. Elvira saw evidence of serious pollution in the drinking water and publicized information that mining practices should be changed. Her action angered both the mining company and the local doctors: the doctors were used to being paid in gold and were angry that their patients were using the new health care center. Elvira and her husband were accused of being communists, a serious charge in the context of Bolivia's political history, and put into jail. She had no access to a public defender or to family because her husband was also in prison. Later, transferred to a women's prison, she was helped by a lawyer and the Assembly of Human Rights, who quickly proved her innocence. She still had to wait seven months to secure her freedom. While in the women's prison, she organized the women to demand visits to spouses in the men's prison so that the families would remain united and supportive. The demand was granted, and the visits have continued since her release.
After securing her freedom, Elvira focused on her friends in prison and on her husband, who was still detained. She then expanded her support to work with poor abandoned prisoners. She has no academic qualifications in the legal process but is motivated by a strong desire to correct injustice.