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Monday, May 27, 2024

A conversation inside Indy’s juvenile detention center

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The Marion County Juvenile Detention Center is located right in the middle of the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood.

It saw more kids admitted in 2023 compared to 2022 according to the Marion County Probation Department. Chief Probation Officer, Christine M. Kerl said last year they saw mostly teens between the ages 15-17 with an average stay of about 22 days.

Since 2000 Pastor Denell Howard has visited the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center, implementing a leadership program for youth.

RELATED: Juvenile justice reform law is a step forward, but some say it’s just the beginning

“Hello young men. How are y’all doing? How are y’all feeling?” Howard said recently to a group of seven boys gathered inside an art room at the detention center.

In a single file line, they had filled the room with their hands behind their

backs as if they were handcuffed before sitting down.  

A 16-year-old answers him.  

“Mid..” he said, shrugging his shoulders. 

The teen had been in juvenile detention two times already.  

A 2019 census showed that Indiana locks up more kids and teens than the state of New York.

Black youth in Indiana are 2 ½ times more likely to be detained and 3 ½ times more likely to be committed to the state compared to their white peers.  

A majority of the boys meeting with Howard were identified as Black.

His leadership program aims to encourage youth who are already inside the Marion County Detention Center.

Marion County Juvenile Detention Center

He meets with different classes every Friday throughout the day and at this session he asks the youth what actions they are taking so that they don’t land back in the center. 

“How I did it was changing the people I hung around and it changed my mindset. I got tired of stealing cars. I don’t want to be in here on no gun charge,” answered one 16-year-old.

“Right,” Howard said, “and when you’re out of here, the temptation doesn’t stop. Some people might say you’re lame if you decide to change your life and y’all still choose to hang out with them.”  

The boys listened intently with their hands interlocked on the table when they were not writing down notes. 

Howard uses the analogy of basketball for the real-life temptations of negative influence.  

“Let’s say (14-year-old) is the best basketball player ever. Mans is hitting them free throws and snatching ankles. He’s got the talent of LeBron James. Then let’s say I suck so bad. I’m horrible, but I’m your homeboy. Who are you going to choose for your team?” said Howard.  

The boys laugh as they point to the 14-year-old.

“Now why is that?” asked Howard.  

“Because you suck,” said one 15-year-old. 

“Exactly, so why keep picking people who aren’t good for your team? We take basketball more seriously than we do our lives. Your basketball team is your life team, and we keep picking players who are miserable. You ain’t never going to win with them,” said Howard.

Youth leadership program

He has the boys write down what he called the 5 phases of change: precontemplation, contemplation, reparation, maintenance, and maintaining change.  

When asked to write down the first phase, many of the young men asked how to spell the word.  

One 15-year-old spelled it flawlessly out loud for everyone.  

“Okay, spelling bee!” said Howard, applauding the teen. 

Howard, who mentors a lot of youth in and outside of the center, said often times due to trauma a lot of children do not see their own potential for anything more outside of their circumstances.

Indianapolis has seen increases in youth homicides over the past few years.

Since the start of 2024, there have been 15 incidents of gun violence involving children under 18 and Howard said the root of the problem boils down to their environment and how they approach violence and crime.

“I mean, respectfully, I understand when people be killing cause like it’s a respect thing, you know?” said one 16-year-old.

“Respect from who?” said Howard.  

“People. Like, any and everybody who knows the code. I did what I did because it had to be done. Respect just comes with getting a body,” said the 16-year-old.

“But what about the body? That’s somebody’s life,” said Howard.  

“What about it?” said the teen. 

Because he feels there have been more cases of violence and crime now than he’s seen in previous years with kids and teens, Howard said that means community leaders need to go just has hard with trying to curb the numbers.

If it is just one day out of the week where he visits and can make a potential change for one youth, he will be there to make that impact.

Encouraging youth to deter from crime

“I don’t want you to be comfortable here. I don’t want you to think this place is a daycare. This place is designed to make you want to change. You guys are smart and intelligent, but they don’t know that,” said Howard. 

“There are new prisons getting built every day around this country for kids like you. They don’t see the potential that I see. They want you to fill these prisons because it is a part of a system. Let people celebrate you graduating. Don’t let them celebrate you going in and out of jail,” said Howard.

“What you want to be when you grow up man? What’s your plan? You have to have a goal,” said Howard. 

“My goal is to start my own business and become a boxer. I plan on finishing school. Either that or I plan on going into job corps,” said a 16-year-old.  

“I guess my goal right now is to finish school. I need to stop skipping school,” said a 14-year-old.

Still, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done if Indiana is going to curb these numbers in the juvenile justice system. 

“What about you? You been quiet this whole time,” said Howard.


“I don’t really have a goal,” said a 17-year-old, “I don’t know what’s next.”

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at (317) 762-7853 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON. 

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