The Justice Department found that over a recent one-year period more than 1,000 prisoners deemed to have mental health problems had been in solitary confinement for at least three months, and nearly 250 for a year or more. Pennsylvania state prisons house just over 50,000 inmates.
"How long it takes to make major changes in a system of this size, it is what it is, when you do it the right way and when you train staff," Wetzel said.
The federal study found that the state's use of solitary often causes or exacerbates mental illness, noting that more than 70 percent of its suicide attempts occur in solitary confinement units. Prisoners with severe mental illness were more than twice as likely as others to end up in solitary.
Pennsylvania's use of solitary confinement violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and its treatment of mentally ill or intellectually disabled prisoners runs afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal government said.
The report said the total number of inmates in solitary deemed to have severe mental illness or intellectual disability was about 115, but the real number is higher because the state undercounts those subpopulations, the Justice Department said.
The federal government described conditions as "dehumanizing and cruel," listing examples such as uncleaned feces on walls, denial of bedding material or clothes and verbal abuse from guards.
The state prisons' mental health staff is too small and does not coordinate well with each other, their record-keeping has been poor and the views of mental health professionals are often ignored, the report said.