Students mentor incarcerated teens through small talk, basketball

The sign outside of the St. Charles County Juvenile Justice Center.
Photo by Abby Stone

ABBY STONE | Reporter 

The pickup basketball game was well-mannered and courteous. One team didn’t try to block the other’s shots or take the ball away. And every player had to make at least three baskets before the game was over.

Adrienne McDowell, a Lindenwood student who works with the teens incarcerated at the St Charles County Juvenile Justice Center, said the game was a testament to how kind the youth can be when they are away from outside influences.

Six students, including McDowell and Cecilia Young, president of the Criminal Justice Student Association, spend Thursday nights at the center as part of a mentoring program Young said their interactions have been with boys only, and they want to be very active.

“We suggested making crafts and stuff, but nah, they want to go play basketball or volleyball,” Young said.

McDowell said despite the cordial game, she and her teammates still got a workout. “Let me tell you, teenage boys and basketball plus college students do not mix; I was exhausted,” McDowell said.

Other than playing games, the teens and their mentors talk about school and academic goals. Young said it’s a good experience for both the criminal justice students and the adolescents at the justice center. She said it gives the teens the opportunity to see what is outside of the detention center, and the mentors also get real-world experience working with juveniles.

“We do want to improve the criminal justice field; we want to give, juveniles especially, a way out of the criminal justice field and help them rehabilitate,” Young said.

This group has been mentoring once a week since last October. Niwar Davis, the superintendent of detention at the justice center, said the program started with Emily Johnson’s Abnormal Psychology class in about 2010. Davis said the program meets a requirement set up by the Missouri Supreme Court to provide programs to the center. Davis said that the juveniles really look forward to the students coming.

“[The juveniles] know they can depend on Lindenwood students to come,” Davis said. “Sometimes it’s the highlight of their week.”

Davis said that sometimes they will even ask for a new pair of pants or a nice shirt so they can look nice for the Lindenwood students.

McDowell said she also looks forward to mentoring. “I could be having a bad week, but I go there on Thursday, and I’m like ‘Hey, we’re going to do something fun tonight,’ and they look forward to it too; this is their fun time,” she said.

Young said the mentors can’t know anything personal about the teens incarcerated there, and vice versa.

McDowell said that if the young people start to talk about personal things, they are supposed to shut it down. This is mostly due to the fact that those incarcerated are minors, and their information is held confidential.

Young and McDowell both said every week, teens are cycled in or out of the justice center, so generally there are new boys every week.

Both said they are there to be positive role models, and McDowell said one recent interaction stood out in her mind. In January, they went around the group, and each talked about their New Year’s resolutions.

“They all said they wanted to get out and never come back,” McDowell said. “It’s really sad to hear, but they realize they made a mistake, and you can hear the hope in their voice that they can turn their life around.”

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