Leah Ouellet, who is currently working toward a master's in criminal justice at Wayne State University, spends her Monday evenings hosting a writing circle with inmates at a local correctional facility to aid in the efforts of restructuring the prison system.
Ouellet, 25, got involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project after spending time working in a juvenile detention facility in Tanzania during her undergraduate studies.
"I hadn't really thought that critically about our prison system until having that experience," said Ouellet. "I knew that it was a really broad and intensive institution. It was really penal in all these different ways, and so different from how it is around the world."
Upon her return, Ouellet began researching different ways to get involved with the criminal justice system in the United States. She found the Prison Creative Arts Project, and felt it was an extension of the work she had been doing in Tanzania, which consisted of teaching English and reading to juvenile inmates.
With the Prison Creative Arts Project, Ouellet works with eight to ten men each week at the Macomb Correctional Facility.
"It's very low-key. I've known the guys in this group for nearly three years, and we have a really great rapport and relationship," she said. "It's just like any other writing circle, except it's inside a prison."
The men in her writing circle often inspire Ouellet with their determination to better themselves despite their sentences. When the men that were given life sentences as juveniles learned that the Supreme Court ruled the sentence to be unconstitutional, she was able to cheer them on.
I'm working with a population whose lives and communities have been wrecked by this really wide-arching systematic mass incarceration.
"It's great to be able to celebrate with them and tell them, 'Yes you are an amazing person. You've worked so hard to become this person. Now, eventually, you're going to be able to get out and be that person in the world.'"
Ouellet's background includes studying social justice and urbanization policy, which provided her with a unique outlook on the U.S. criminal justice system and prison reform.
"I'm working with a population whose lives and communities have been wrecked by this really wide-arching systematic mass incarceration."
Ouellet, who chose to pursue her master's at Wayne State University because of its dedication to Detroit and the people who live there, was pleased with the faculty members who offered guidance when she was unsure of what career path to take.
"I've gotten to talk a lot with my professors and got a lot of guidance and mentoring from them, and that's really important to me."
The experiences Ouellet has had working with Prison Creative Arts Project, combined with her experiences at Wayne State University, have provided her with unique skills and hands-on experience to carry into her future.
"At places like Wayne State, there are avenues to get involved with the criminal justice system, to do your own project and make it a part of your life," she said.
By Carly Adams, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences communications associate