Morgan County Sheriff’s Office strengthening mental health strategies while the state fights federal judge’s order

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MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. - Morgan County Deputies want to find solutions for inmates in their jail to stop future problems for them. Sheriff Ron Puckett said it's both a reactive and proactive approach to growing shortages of mental health assistance.

The Morgan County Sheriff's Office, along with local governments in Morgan County, the Decatur Police Department, and the Decatur Morgan Hospital is receiving grant money for a national program, 'The Stepping Up Initiative.' This funds a case manager to connect inmates in Morgan County's jail, and those in need of mental health and substance abuse help in the emergency room, with professional services when they are released.

Kathy Goodwin, with the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama, is the case manager for the jail.

There are far more people entering jails in the United States than people sitting in a prison cell. Many of them battling a mental health or substance abuse disorder.

"When they are released from the jail, they will at least know me and we will make attempts to connect them with the services once they get out," Goodwin said.

Around 600 inmates are housed in the Morgan County jail. Nationally, the Bureau of Statistics reports 209,615 people are put in jail weekly. That is far more than the nearly 12,000 sent to prison, according to the agency.

"We need to address it on the county level and like you said, maybe prevent some of those folks from getting to the state level," Goodwin said.

The assumed responsibility is a major burden for Morgan County's detention officers.

"We're here to make sure that they're safe, that we have control and that they're comfortable to a large degree," Puckett said. "Our care for them is not the same care that they would get from a mental health provider."

There are major issues at the prison level as it relates to mental health care of inmates. A federal judge called the state of the Alabama Department of Corrections 'horrendously inadequate' and demanded the department work to fix these problems.

This week, ADOC said the federal court is asking too much. The department says they're understaffed at all prisons and can't provide the guards for the services the judge wants to require.

The 'Stepping Up Initiative' is awarded through a one-time grant. The Morgan County agencies and Mental Health Care Center are working together to collect data showing the success of the program. If it proves successful, they hope the local governments will financially support it going forward.

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