Morgan County Sheriff’s Office embracing initiative to get mental health help for inmates

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DECATUR, Ala. - Sheriff Ron Puckett wants inmates to leave jail and never return. He also wants those with mental health issues, which is many of them, to get the professional help they need when they are released that way they won't return to jail.

The sheriff said his deputies are often called to the homes of people in mental health crisis.  Sheriff Puckett said if the person refuses to go to the hospital, law enforcement will often get called back to the home and the person might have committed some sort of crime that results in a jail stay.

Sheriff Puckett said some 600 inmates are housed in the Morgan County Jail with around 130 corrections officers, working different shifts, caring for them. The tough part is the deputies are not trained therapists and psychologists, so they can't provide short nor long-term care for people in mental health crisis. Sadly, the stress of caring for someone in this situation has been dangerous for at least one of his deputies.

"In jail, they are still going through a mental health crisis," Puckett explained. "One of our inmates attacked one of our corrections officers last week. It put him in the hospital and that corrections officer is leaving us."

Now, the Morgan County Sheriff's Office is partnering with many agencies across the county including Decatur Police, Decatur Morgan Hospital and the local governments, to participate in the 'Stepping Up Initiative.' This is lead by the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama.

Kathy Goodwin, the “Stepping Up” Coordinator/Case Manager with the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama, said this program is a connector for the inmates to mental health services and substance abuse programs in the community. For example, psychiatric assessment, medication prescription, outpatient counseling, case management, housing, transportation, alcohol and other drug prevention/education and other services.

Goodwin said the program wants to break any barrier preventing a person who is leaving jail from getting the help they need to live a normal life.

"If they need housing, if they need food, if they need clothes, if they need transportation then we're going to try to help them with that with the community partners that we have involved," Goodwin explained.

The 'Stepping Up' program is available to Morgan County through a grant. The grant money allowed them to hire a case manager, which is Goodwin. This is a one-year grant, but they are hoping to demonstrate enough success that local or state governments will want to continue funding it.

This program will also collect data from the start then throughout the program to track its success. Amy Bippen, Care Transition Manager for the Decatur Morgan Hospital, said the information collected will help her program too.

"As a part of the Stepping Up program, which is a federal grant that's been set out to provide a case worker to help us to keep these people all being provided with the things they need to handle their mental health needs at home," Bippen explained.

Sheriff Puckett said multiple times, this is a way to help inmates about to get released and it's a way to keep the community safe. Plus, it's more cost-effective than paying for their jail stay.