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In Washington, D.C., today, lawmakers held what they called the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said they wanted to explore the costs of long-term isolation, and some of what they heard was disturbing. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: At any given moment in the federal prison system, about 15,000 men and women are living in solitary confinement in tiny cells not much bigger than a king-sized bed. Craig Haney is a psychologist who's studied life inside prisons for 30 years.

CRAIG HANEY: 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.

JOHNSON: To make the point, senators asked the architect's office in the Capitol to put a replica of one of those cells - tall white box, no windows - right in the hearing room.

ANTHONY GRAVES: Solitary confinement, it breaks a man's will to live, and he deteriorates right in front of your eyes.

JOHNSON: The sight was all too familiar for Anthony Graves. Graves told lawmakers he lived for years on death row in Texas, before he was freed and ultimately exonerated in 2010. Graves said he saw inmates attempt suicide, cut themselves and then this horrible image.

GRAVES: There's a man right there sitting on Texas death row right now who's housed in solitary confinement, pulled his eye out and swallowed it.

JOHNSON: Two new lawsuits mention other disturbing behavior by inmates held in isolation. One case focuses on California's Pelican Bay facility, where nearly 100 inmates have been held in isolation for 20 years. The other is in Colorado, site of a federal supermax prison, where lawyers say many of the 490 prisoners living in solitary have severe mental problems. Both lawsuits argue solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Panel chairman Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, pressed the director of the federal prison system for his view.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: Do you believe that confinement, solitary confinement 23 hours a day, five hours a week when you're allowed to leave that box or something that size, do you believe based on your life experience in this business that that is going to have a negative impact on an individual?

CHARLES SAMUELS: Sir, I would say I don't believe it is the preferred option.

JOHNSON: But Charles Samuels, the leader of the overcrowded prison system, says he's got to have someplace to put the most dangerous inmates who have killed other people behind bars.

SAMUELS: We believe with solitary confinement for the inmates who pose the most violence and disruption within the facility that we utilize it as a deterrent to correct the behavior.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you think it works...

SAMUELS: Yes.

GRAHAM: ...as a deterrent?

JOHNSON: That was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, who says he'd like to see more research. Lawmakers also heard from state corrections officials like Christopher Epps of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. Epps says people need to remember most inmates, including the ones held in isolation, eventually get out.

CHRISTOPHER EPPS: We realize that 95 percent of all the individuals that's incarcerated in Mississippi is coming back to our neighborhood whether we like it or not.

JOHNSON: And when they come back, they can bring what they learned in solitary with them. Anthony Graves.

GRAVES: I had no physical contact with another human being for 10 of the 18 years I was incarcerated. Today, I have a hard time being around a group of people for long periods of time without feeling too crowded.

JOHNSON: Graves says he survived, but those 18 years were no way to live. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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