At any given moment, about 15,000 men and women are living in solitary confinement in the federal prison system, housed in tiny cells not much larger than a king-sized bed.
"It is hard to describe in words what such a small space begins to look like, feel like and smell like when someone is required to live virtually their entire life in it," says Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
But Tuesday, Haney, who has studied life inside prisons for three decades, had an opportunity to paint that picture.
I've never in my life desired a low-sodium biscuit, but I let the well-groomed woman at the Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C. this week goad me into eating one.
"They're soooo good, I swear," she says.
It's perfectly fluffy and edible, this low-sodium biscuit, but seconds after it's gone I'm regretting having just wolfed down the whole thing. That's precious space in my stomach that I've just forfeited for an unremarkable food I'd never be interested in eating again.
Advocates for prisoners rights say too many inmates spend years in solitary confinement — in violation of the constitutional bar against cruel and unusual punishment. Today, they persuaded the U.S. Senate to hold the first hearing on the issue, as state and federal prison systems fend off new lawsuits over the practice.
The federal government could soon give the final go-ahead for Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Shell has spent $4 billion since 2007 to prepare for this work, and is hoping to tap into vast new deposits of oil.
But the plan to drill exploratory wells is controversial — opposed by environmental groups and some indigenous people as well.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrapped up a five-day, six-state tour in Michigan on Tuesday.
Each of the states he visited was won by President Obama in the 2008 election. Each is also shaping up as a potential battleground this year.
In Michigan, the state where Romney was born, he avoided big cities and stayed in places friendly to the GOP. As he traveled east to west across central Michigan by bus, there were some pockets of protesters, but mostly at a distance.
Credit Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation / AP
A nearly 70-foot dock that was torn loose from a fishing port in northern Japan by last year's tsunami washed ashore on Agate Beach in Oregon. Marine scientists have found potentially invasive species among the 100 tons of marine life that traveled aboard the dock.
Beaches on the West Coast are getting a regular dose of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The first few items were curiosities — a boat here, a soccer ball there — but as the litter accumulates, officials such as Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire have acknowledged the scale of the problem.
"We are in for a steady dribble of tsunami debris over the next few years, so any response by us must be well-planned — and it will be," she said.
Beyond the obvious problem of litter, officials are on the lookout for hidden dangers.
The party that won Greece's parliamentary elections on Sunday has accepted the tough conditions international lenders imposed to bail out the ailing nation. But there's been talk that the party wants to seek some concessions on the terms of the rescue package.
At the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her tough line that bailout terms for Greece are not negotiable. After the summit, Merkel returns to a German electorate that is now fed up with a debt crisis that only seems to grow and worsen.