We could see them beyond the dirt lot, standing in the heat beside their sand-brown tents, the razor wire wrapped in sheaths around their compound.
No pictures of the prisoners, we were told. Do not enter the compound. Do not go inside the wire. Of the up to 800 Iraqis held here, only a handful are "security detainees" - the rest are "criminal detainees" - but until now almost all of them have lived out here in the heat and dust and muck. Which is why the Americans were so pleased to see us at Saddam's vile old prison yesterday: things are getting better.
So first, the good news. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, commander of the US 800th Military Police Brigade, has cleaned up the burnt and looted jail cells for hundreds of prisoners. A new medical section with stocks of medicines, X-ray machines and even a defibrillator has been installed. There is even a kindly Iraqi doctor called Hussain Majid who praises the new Ministry of Health and the occupation authorities for sending him, and paying for, "all the medicines we need". In the newly painted cells there are blankets and toothpaste, toothbrush, soap and shampoo for every man, neatly placed for them - and for us, I suspect - on their prison blankets. Even the jail canteen has been re-floored with new tiles.
Crisis-tourism is a pastime in New Iraq but yesterday's little trip around Abu Ghraib was, well, a little odd. General Karpinski is a tough lady - she was an intelligence officer in 7th Special Forces at Fort Bragg and served as a "targeting officer" in Saudi Arabia after Saddam invaded Kuwait - but she had a little difficulty at first in recalling that there was a riot at the jail in May in which US troops used "lethal force" when protesting prisoners threw stones and tent-legs at American military policemen. The troops killed a teenage inmate.
But she was remarkably frank on other events: such as the fact that the Americans in Abu Ghraib are attacked four out of every seven nights with mortar shells, small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. That's 16 times a month. And that's a lot of attacks.
Most of the "security detainees" - the 800th MP Brigade's publicity says they have the responsibility of "caring" for prisoners rather than guarding them - are across at Baghdad airport where, General Karpinski says, there are men who "may be part of a resistance force". Note the word "resistance", rather than terrorist. Then when I asked if there were any Western prisoners being held, she said that she thought there were "six claiming to be American and two claiming to be from the UK". Which is the first time anyone has revealed that interesting little statistic.
Then came the head doctor of Abu Ghraib prison, Dr Majid. When I asked him what his job was when Saddam used the place as a torture and execution centre, he replied that he was, um, the head doctor of Abu Ghraib prison. Indeed, half his staff were running the medical centre at Abu Ghraib under the Saddam regime. "No, I didn't ever attend the executions," he said. "I couldn't stand that. I sent my junior doctors to do the death certificates." Except at night, of course, when the security services brought in political prisoners for hanging. Then Dr Majid would receive an instruction saying "no death certificates". The politicals were hanged at night. During the day, the doctor said, it was the "killers" who were hanged. Killers? Killers? What did his use of that word imply?
The new Iraqi prison guards at Abu Ghraib have been trained in human rights - including two, it turned out, who had been police officers under the Saddam regime. No wonder General Karpinski said the Americans hadn't chosen the doctors - that had been the work of the new Ministry of Health. There were US intelligence officers in Abu Ghraib but no, the military police were not present during interrogations. Yes, General Karpinski had visited Guantanamo Bay for "a few days" but had not brought any lessons learnt there to Baghdad. There had only been one suicide attempt - in a Baghdad prison - when an inmate tried to slash his wrists.
Of course, there was a statutory visit to Abu Ghraib's old death chamber, the double hanging room in which poor Farzad Bazoft of The Observer and thousands of Iraqis were put to death. General Karpinski gave the lever a tug and the great iron trapdoors clanged open, their echo vibrating through the walls.
Dr Majid said he had never heard them before, that he was never even a member of the Baath party. So let this be written in history: the chief medical officer at Saddam's nastiest prison - who is now the chief medical officer at America's cleanest Iraqi prison - was never a member of the Baath party and never saw an execution.
Of course, there are things that only those with a heart of stone cannot be moved by, the last words written and carved on the walls of the filthy death row cells, just a few yards from the gallows. "Ahmed Qambal, 8/9/2000", "Ahmed Aziz from Al-Najaf governorate, with Jabah, 2/9/01", "Abbad Abu Mohamed." Sometimes they had added verses from the Koran. "Death is better than shame." "Death is life for a believer and a high honour." What courage it must have taken to write such words, their very last on Earth.
But there was something just a little too neat about all this. Against Saddam's cruelty, any institution looks squeaky clean. Yet there's a lot about Abu Ghraib that doesn't look as clean as the new kitchens.
There is still no clear judicial process for the supposed killers, thieves and looters behind the razor wire. The military admits that the transcription of Arabic names - with all the Ellis Island mistakes that can lead to - meant that families often could not find their loved ones.
There was no mention, until we brought it up, of the mortar attack that killed six of the prisoners in their tents last month. The Americans had sent psychologists to talk to the prisoners afterwards and found that the inmates believed - surprise, surprise - that the Americans were using them as human shields.
And you can just imagine what those same prisoners feel in their tents on four out of every seven nights when the mortar shells explode again around the old jail. Which is one reason, of course, General Karpinski wants to get her prisoners into their spanking new cells.Reuse content