Every so often at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca, the two largest U.S.-run detention centers in Iraq, prisoners decide to try the “self-release” program. Usually, according to U.S. officials, they don’t get far.

Last Sunday at Abu Ghraib, an alarm sounded in the early morning hours, and the search was on for eight detainees who’d gone missing.

“It took about three hours, almost until daylight, to round them all up,” said one person involved in the search who declined to be identified. “Some were on rooftops, some were hiding in unlocked vehicles, others were just slinking around inside trying to figure out how to get all the way out.”

In the past year, just four detainees under U.S. military control escaped from Abu Ghraib and remained on the loose, according to Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, spokesman for the Army task force that runs detainee operations.

Eleven more escaped one night from Camp Bucca but all were recaptured by the next day, he said. More have tried to escape and gotten out of their assigned compounds but were recaptured within the prison walls, including two last month.

“I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen. There’s going to be some of them that are going to try to get out,” Rudisill said. “They’ll try to hide in Dumpsters … one was once found in the wheel well of a 5-ton (truck.)”

Rudisill said there have been no reported escapes or attempts from Fort Suse, which he said has rooms “more like jail cells.” Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca consist of compounds within compounds, with tents at Abu Ghraib and buildings at Camp Bucca.

The latest Abu Ghraib attempt followed one a couple of weeks before. In that attempt, three prisoners tried to escape from the “hard site” — where the notorious 2003 prisoner abuse took place, and which was recently being used by the Iraq government to house convicted Iraqis until last week, when those prisoners were transferred elsewhere.

Not included in Rudisill’s numbers, he said, was the June escape of seven prisoners under Iraqi jurisdiction from the “hard site.” In that instance, 16 prisoners made a break for it but nine were recaptured before they breached the walls, Rudisill said.

Last April, 11 men escaped from Camp Bucca out into the countryside, Rudisill said. But a British patrol spotted them and their orange jump suits and notified Iraqi police to pick them up. Iraqi police did pick them up and they were returned to Camp Bucca within 24 hours, Rudisill said, but not until after they’d been interviewed on Iraqi television.

In May, three Iraqi detainees successfully evaded capture, Rudisill said, after making it to the Abu Ghraib outer fence and cutting a hole in it. In August, another detainee noticed missing at a 6:15 a.m. headcount was never found, although two holes in the fence were.

Rudisill said the holes were probably cut with rebar, which sometimes can be found on the grounds, despite searches for contraband, because the prison was built over a dump.

“They’ll bend it into a wedge shape and twist it until it breaks the fence, and sneak out that way,” Rudisill said. “That’s the way most of them have gotten out. The fence is too tall and makes too much noise to climb it.” It also is topped by razor and barbed wire, he said.

All the escapes and attempted escapes have taken place late at night or early in the morning to try to take advantage of the dark, Rudisill said. Detainees’ quarters, however, are lit 24 hours a day and after the escapes — and after an after-action review — lights have been added to the prison grounds.

In the attempt to escape from Abu Ghraib two weeks ago, one man made it outside the wall and was found there wandering after daylight. “He didn’t know where he was or where to go,” one person said.

In 2003 and 2004, when the 800th Military Police Brigade was in charge of the detention centers, it’s thought that 30 or more men escaped from detention centers. An Army investigation following the abuse scandal said that 27 escapes or attempted escapes were documented and it was highly probable that other unreported escapes were “written off as administrative errors or otherwise undocumented.”

U.S.-run detention centers were holding 14,514 people as of Friday, Rudisill said, more than 2,000 more than the ideal capacity.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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