Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett said the county jail was built to house criminals, but it has become a catch-all facility. He said too many of his inmates are dealing with mental health issues and get caught up in the system.
Sheriff Puckett just implemented a new program working to change this.
"We run into that often, and then they come to the county jail for help, but you can't get individual help if you're incarcerated," Puckett said.
Right now, there are about 600 inmates in the Morgan County Jail. Detention workers said about 40 percent of the inmate population suffers from some kind of mental health or substance abuse issue, but they believe the numbers could be much higher.
"Get them out and get them help. You don't come to jail for help, you come to jail for incarceration. We need to get them out of jail to get them help, and hopefully get them back on their medications," Puckett said. "Normal, working, law-abiding citizens that can produce like anyone else in the county."
Puckett recently implemented a program that aims to change that cycle. It's called the Stepping Up program.
Morgan County, along with a few other counties, qualified for a grant to fund the program. It launched in January and is spearheaded by a counselor, Kathy Goodwin. So far, Goodwin identified 60 inmates who would benefit from the services.
"I consider myself a connector. I meet with the inmates before they get released and offer them Stepping Up case management services and connect them with the services that they need. We're trying to connect the barriers that might have kept them from receiving the right kind of treatment. Hopefully, this keeps them from coming back to the jail because of mental health issues," Goodwin said.
Goodwin said the program has a track record of success.
Montgomery County, Alabama had a similar community partnership. Before the jail had a designated case manager, inmates who had a mental health issue had a 50 percent rate of re-offending and ending up back in jail.
"When we dedicated case managers to help them with these barriers, it went below 5 percent, so we know that it can be effective if they take advantage of these services," Goodwin said.
Sheriff Puckett said he's optimistic the program will help people get their lives on track, and he says it will also save taxpayers a lot of money.
"We spend over a million dollars a year for healthcare in the Morgan County Jail, and that includes mental healthcare. That's a lot of money taxpayers are paying for healthcare, for inmates in jail," Puckett said. "Hopefully, the savings would be...if that person doesn't come in jail, they're not having to house, feed and provide healthcare and mental health for that individual for the second time."
Goodwin said she has seen how impactful this program is, and she looks forward to helping this group become contributing members of the community.
Sheriff Puckett said, eventually, he would like to create a mental health court in Morgan County. It would be a court system specially dedicated for inmates who have mental health issues and making sure they get the help they need.
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