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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. As American forces prepare to wind down their role in Iraq, among the items on their to-do list is closing the prison camps that once held as many as 26,000 inmates. Most of those prisoners are accused of taking part in the insurgency or sectarian violence. U.S. commanders say they're releasing as many as 50 detainees a day, with plans to turn the most dangerous extremists over to a revamped Iraqi prison system. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.

COREY FLINTOFF: Many of the prisoner releases take place at Camp Cropper, a prison that's part of the sprawling American military base on the outskirts of Baghdad. It houses more than 3,000 detainees, and it's also a training center for Iraqi corrections officers.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: At midday, the new shift of guards marches into the compound, pacing in time to their chant, which says: We resisted the terrorists, fought and defeated them. We are with you, Iraq. American officers at the facility have high hopes for these newly trained guards, betting that they'll eventually change an Iraqi prison system that's been repeatedly condemned for poor conditions and human rights abuses. The guards pass by another innovation of the American system: a visitation center where family members wait to meet with prisoners. The center is a long room with a widescreen television blaring cartoons over a children's play area filled with toys.

On one side of room, there's a row of benches for waiting family members, on the other, a row of desks where soldiers and interpreters greet the visitors and take biometric data to identify them. Tahreer Yousif Hameed is used to the routine. She's been here four times before to visit her 20-year-old son, who was arrested in October in an early-morning raid on their home. Hameed says she expects her son to be freed soon.

Ms. TAHREER YOUSIF HAMEED (Through Translator): He told me that they're releasing 50 detainees a day, and God willing, he'll be among them about a month from now.

FLINTOFF: Hameed says her son has already gone before an Iraqi court, which found nothing against him. Brigadier General David Quantock is in charge of the military detainee program in Iraq. He says cases like Hameed's are part of the way the American military has been handling detainees since January 1st when the status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government took effect. All newly arrested suspects must now go before an Iraqi court. Quantock points out that even under the old system, the military was able to safely process and release thousands of prisoners.

Brigadier General DAVID QUANTOCK (US Army): It seems to be hard to get this in the press, but last year we released 18,000 detainees last year - 18,600. Only had 157 come back.

FLINTOFF: Quantock credits that low rate of recidivism to the rehabilitation programs offered by the U.S. detention system, including education programs, health care and religious discussions with moderate Muslim clerics. He also says the system works because it separates the extremists from people who were not motivated by ideology.

Brig. Gen. QUANTOCK: Because most of our detainees were motivated by primarily two things: money, because they didn't have jobs and they needed to earn some money, or fear of retribution. I mean, if you're in a bad neighborhood, you join the local gang.

FLINTOFF: As for the most dangerous inmates, Quantock says the U.S. is building a new prison in the northern town of Taji, which will eventually be turned over to the Iraqi government.

Brig. Gen. QUANTOCK: At the end of the day, at least four or 5,000 really bad guys - we want to put them behind bars where they deserve to be.

FLINTOFF: Quantock says the U.S. military plans to be out of the detention business by the end of this year, either by releasing inmates or turning them over to what they hope will be a model correction system run by Iraqis.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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