The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib Prison

Special Report from Iraq by

Author Dave Goodwin Traded in His Ghost Hunting Equipment for an M-4 Rifle When He was Sent to Iraq. He Never Expected to Find Ghosts in this War-Torn Country but He Quickly Found Out that Assumption was Wrong!

This ghostly adventure has an unlikely beginning.  It started inauspiciously enough when I and sixteen other members of the 35th Engineer Brigade, Design Management Section, Missouri Army National Guard, were mobilized for active duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in October 2004.  We knew even before we reported for duty that our ultimate destination was none other than Baghdad, Iraq.

Overnight, I traded my EMF meter and non-contact thermometer for an M-4 rifle and I planned to essentially set aside my otherworldly interests for a year. But then again, I have always had a knack for sniffing out a good ghost story and those of you who have been seriously seeking the paranormal for any length of time know what they say “once a ghost hunter, always a ghost hunter”.   I was not going to let a little thing like “combat” curtail something I have considered a passion of mine for over 15 years. For some reason, I just knew that an opportunity would present itself. 

At the time of my activation in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the heinous events that had transpired at the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison, located approximately 32 kilometers west of Baghdad Iraq, were no longer breaking headline news.

Dave at the entrance to the Abu Ghraib Cell Block where the controversial events occurred

Prior to that however, the inhumane treatment of Iraqi detainees there by a select few American service men and women in the Fall of 2003, galvanized the world’s attention.  Stark images of hooded and bound prisoners piled like animals in a myriad of compromising positions and those of inmates with their hands and genitalia connected to (non electrified wires) only served to ignite anti-coalition fervor within Iraq.  The scandal was serious enough that it had given a black eye to U.S. lead initiatives throughout the Middle East. 

By the time I arrived at Camp Victory, Baghdad in December 2004, all of the past tabloid media hype about the prison and its ghastly history under the sadist, Saddam Hussein, was the farthest thing from my mind. I had more pressing issues to worry about, that being the random insurgent mortar and rocket attacks on the very place I was to call home for the next 365 days. 

In February 2005, the Design Management Section was tasked with developing plans for a military detention facility that would eventually replace the one at Abu Ghraib.  To accurately assess the requirements for a new confinement center, it was imperative that we know what currently “worked” and what “did not work” from a technical design standpoint at Abu Ghraib. To find the answers to these questions, myself and 7 other members of the Design Management Section were sent on a one day fact finding tour of Abu Ghraib. Our mission was simple, conduct an onsite reconnaissance; little did I know what laid in wait for us there!

The Baghdad Central Confinement Facility or “Saddam’s Torture Central” was an American designed reformatory that had been built by British contractors.  It officially opened its doors in March, 1970.  The modern sprawling 280 acre prison complex complete with numerous imposing guard towers was originally built to house 4,200 prisoners.  The facility was further broken down into five separate cell blocks each designated to hold different categories of inmates; foreign prisoners, those serving long sentences, those serving short sentences, those prisoners who committed “capital crimes and those who committed “special” crimes.  Each individual walled compound contained cramped 4 by 4 meter cells, crude dining and washing facilities, a prayer room and exercise yard.  When the prison opened, it adhered to strict international prison standards but when Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, overcrowding became a problem.

One of the empty cell blocks at Abu Ghraib. During the Gulf War, members of the captured British SAS Team "Bravo Two Zero" were incarcerated and tortured here.

It was not uncommon for each cell to hold up to 40 prisoners at any given time.  Here, men who were sentenced to 20 years of incarceration for stealing a chicken lived side by side with murders, rapists, and other hardcore criminals. During the first Gulf War, members of a captured British Special Air Services (SAS) commando team known as “Bravo Two Zero” were housed at Abu Ghraib while undergoing extreme physical torture and interrogation.

The area reserved for Saddam’s most favorite type of scofflaws, better known as “political prisoners”, was separated into two sections “open” and “closed”.  Shi’ites were imprisoned in the “closed” wing and were for all intensive purposes held incommunicado from the outside world until they were released or worse yet executed.

When Abu Ghraib was under the control of Saddam and his Ba’athist cronies, the prison was literally a place synonymous with brutality and death.  It was a symbol of terror that Saddam gladly used to control the free people of Iraq. Guards at Abu Ghraib routinely beat prisoners, many of which were being held without charges. In some instances the unsympathetic guards fed shredded pieces of plastic to inmates just for fun. Those detainees fortunate enough to be paroled from “Saddam’s Torture Central” were gaunt shadows of their former selves. It was said that “those who go in are lost and those who come out are reborn”.  Life at Abu Ghraib was the epitome of “Cruel” 

Unfortunately many who entered the gates of Abu Ghraib were never heard from again. In 1984, over 4000 political prisoners were murdered in Saddam’s “Death House” which was sequestered in an isolated section of the prison. Amnesty International reported that between 1994 and 2001, more than 333 Shia Muslims were killed at Abu Ghraib.  It is believed that hundreds of unidentified prisoners were executed there in November 1996 alone. Sadly, these numbers are misleadingly low. Fearing negative world reaction to the Amnesty International claims of vicious treatment of inmates at the prison, Saddam had his henchmen carry out exterminations in secret. Worse yet, it was alleged that some of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were used as human guinea pigs in horrendous Iraqi military chemical and biological weapons tests.

In 2001, Abu Ghraib reportedly housed over 15,000 prisoners. Prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003; plans were made to expand the facility but construction was put on hold at the onset of hostilities.  When U.S. forces toppled Saddam’s government, many of his former enemies and previous Abu Ghraib’s alumni boldly returned to loot and pillage the prison.  They defaced images of the former dictator and literally stole anything that was not bolted down.  It was a classic case of the inmates running the asylum.

Today, Abu Ghriab is a kaleidoscope of both the old and the new. The U.S. currently operates a detention facility at the site known as “Camp Redemption”. It is staffed by a professional, caring cadre made up of U.S. and coalition forces. At any given time, the prison can house several thousand alleged criminals or captured insurgents.  In 2004, the oldest part of Abu Ghraib was returned to the Iraqi government for use as a civilian correctional facility. Other than a few technical improvements, the archaic buildings look the same as they did when Saddam was in power.

When we started our journey to Abu Ghraib on that sunny winter morning in February, no one really knew what to expect.  First we had to make the perilous trip from Camp Victory to the prison itself. Going outside of the wire is always a knuckle biting experience in Iraq. Accompanied by an ominous looking security escort team, our tiny convoy of up-armored vehicles left the main gate of Camp Victory loaded for bear and looking for trouble.  We traveled the pot holed roads at breakneck speed hoping to avoid roadside bombs and ambushes.  We slowed, only slightly as we traveled through the various small villages and hamlets that dot the countryside between Baghdad and our final destination.  When we passed through each town, small children approached our convoy, hands held high, asking for food and candy. We prayed that the presence of these innocent kids was not an insurgent ploy to get us “bottled necked” or worse yet, stopped in a “kill zone”. Once we were sure the overzealous children were safely off to the side of the road, we picked up speed and in no time at all, we reached Abu Ghraib.  After our short but intense ride, we as a collective group breathed a sigh of relief when we finally entered the base.  In a country where death is random for friend and foe alike, we were again as safe as we could be in “war zone”.

From the start, I was surprised by our reception.  Many times, when you show up to visit a location, you are treated like a “bastard step child” but in this instance we were treated just the opposite.  We were treated like real VIP’s. Our tour guide was Major Anderson * He had been assigned to Abu Ghraib for the majority of his tour and in that time he had cultivated many friendships there. As a result, we were treated to a rare, behind the scenes glimpse of life at the prison. This included a walk through of the prisoner in-processing building(s), tours of the various detainee holding areas within Camp Redemption, and the soldiers living quarters which were nothing more than retrofitted old cell blocks.  Along the way Major Anderson interjected personal comments, observations and quotes from his tenure at Abu Ghraib.  This human touch brought a whole new dimension to our stopover.

Everywhere we went, we snapped numerous pictures using our digital cameras.  I mention this now because there is dust everywhere in Iraq.  Despite that, every one of our pictures to this point had been crystal clear and free of anomalies.

Towards the end of our tour we stopped by the old Iraqi portion of the prison and met with a U.S. contractor who was “advising” the new Iraqi warden on the best way to run the facility.  This is the portion of Abu Ghraib that is totally reserved for the incarceration of Iraqi criminals.  The U.S. contractor was a very talkative, good natured, mountain of a man. We learned that he had previously ran the prison when it was still under coalition control so he knew the history and the layout of the place like the back of his hand.  He offered to show us the exact location in the prison where all of the recently sensationalized prisoner abuse photographs had been taken.  Who could pass up a once in a life time opportunity like that!

As we made our way to the cell block in question, I mentioned to the former warden that the prison seemed to be immersed in a “surreal” blanket of despair.  He agreed without question saying that the older parts of the prison “played tricks with your mind” and that it was in those deepest, darkest recesses that he himself and other people on his staff had seen strange shadows and heard unearthly disembodied voices when no one else was present. I would not have expected these kinds of statements from a prominent civilian contractor.  He did not strike me as a believer in the paranormal and he did not come across as a skeptic.  He was just telling me, matter-of-factly, what it was like to work inside the prison, especially at night when Abu Ghraib had an “energy” all its own.

Saddam's Death House -- where scores of prisoners met their end

Finally, the coup de grace! The last place we visited at Abu Ghraib was Saddam’s “Death House”.  It thankfully now stands totally empty, devoid of all human life except for the occasional visiting dignitary.  It is kept from the prying eyes of the world by a large gate that is always locked day and night.  There is no one standing guard at the gate but when you walk past the entrance, you cannot help but feel the sting of 1000 unblinking eyes watching you.  As Major Anderson fumbled with the lock, he mentioned something that had happened one time when he and several of his peers had previously entered the inner courtyard of the “Death House” to look around.  He said that he was standing there looking in the direction of the Death House when he suddenly had the unnerving feeling that someone or something was going to slam the huge gate behind him and his party locking them all inside. Major Anderson said that no matter how hard he tried to reason with himself, he was unable to shake his irrational fear even though he knew he had the keys to the gate in his pocket.  First the wardens ghostly comments and now Major Anderson’s candor on the subject inspired me. I was primed!! With a grin on his face, Major Anderson pushed open the gate and ushered us into the courtyard of the “Death House”.  

The “Death House” is a one and a half story building which had been constructed by Saddam Hussein to rid himself of unwanted human pests and political prisoners.  Those awaiting execution were corralled into 8 small (and I mean small) holding cells until there was just standing room only.  Once the “Death House” was filled to overflowing with the living, the condemned were escorted to the “Gallows” where they were hanged two at a time.  Others were taken to an area just below the gallows where their pitiful lives were unceremoniously snuffed out in a small gas chamber.

 According to Major Anderson, Saddam brought his son’s Uday and Qusay to the “Death House” when they were 9 or 10 years old to teach them how to torture and kill.  It turned out to be a skill the two brothers perfected to a fine art all the way up until the start of the U.S. invasion in 2003.

 On the day of our visit, the “Death House” was basked in the scarlet rays of a waning winter’s sun.  I noted that as our small group stood in its shadow; a pal of uneasiness seemed to settle over us.  Smiles were quickly replaced by straight faces.  There was without a doubt, a dark presence emanating from the silent whitewashed monolith that now dared us to enter.

 Cautiously, we walked around the “Death House” snapping and clicking pictures, amazed that one man could build such a testament to horror.  One by one we entered the building and were almost instantly enveloped in a cloud of cool damp air that was laced with the scent of rot and decay. I turned to my left and entered the cell block where the condemned were held.  There before me were 8 open doors. To me they were nothing more than rusted metal cell doors but for those unfortunates who looked upon them for the last time, they must have seemed like toothless mouths, there to devour their very souls. 

 As I entered one of the small cells, I closed my eyes and listened.  With only 8 people inside the building the echoes and resulting noise was almost intolerable.  I could only imagine what it must have been like at night, when the cries and pleas for mercy of hundreds of panicked inmates congealed into one woeful death song.  It must have been an unearthly racket, a resonant energy that undoubtedly embedded itself into the very fabric of the “Death House” over the years it was in operation. It was a stir of echoes that you could literally feel. For me, it was as real as the 220 volt current running through the walls. The only other time I had felt emotion of that magnitude was when I had toured Dachau, a German Concentration Camp, in 1996.  Feeling more than a little skittish, I took a few photographs of the area and rejoined the rest of the group at the gallows.  

Saddam's Gallows

 Saddam did not go out of his way to put much creative thought into the design of his gallows.  They were crude, simple and obviously effective.   Gone now were the two hangman’s nooses had been tied to large iron beams in the ceiling.  Prisoners stood over one of two trapdoors which were separated by the long metal switch that activated them.  The gas chamber lay neatly tucked away beneath the floor. It was connected to the main room by a small set of stairs.  As I stood there in awe, I noticed cameras flashing around me and I instinctively pulled mine out of its case and clicked off a few frames for posterity.  I also noticed another thing, relative silence. No one in the group was talking, just mumbling to themselves.  We were all suddenly very contemplative and somber.

A short time later, we gathered in the courtyard where we talked about our impressions and feelings while inside the Death House. While I found that it was strange that almost all of us had experienced an overwhelming feeling of sadness when we walked through the gallows and the prisoner holding area. I was even more disturbed when we started to compare our photographs.   

As I has mentioned previously, up until the time we arrived at the Death House, our pictures had been relatively free of spectral anomalies.  This was not to be the case thereafter.  Almost every photograph that I and the rest of the group had taken while inside the ghastly place was filled with strange mists and flickering orbs.  Even our commanding officer commented that he could not explain why the strange balls of ghostly light only appeared in the photos taken while we were in and around the Death House.  The fact is that Abu Ghraib is covered in sand and dust like any other place in Iraq.  If the orbs had been caused by airborne particles they should have been in virtually every picture we had taken that day, but they were not.

Several weeks later, a security element from HHD, 20th Engineer Brigade, known as the “Thunder Cats’ toured Abu Ghraib.  I can attest that the “Thunder Kittens” as we jokingly call them, were wholly unaware of our previous experiences at Saddam’s “Death House”. Upon their triumphant return to Camp Victory, they regaled all who would listen of their exploits, specifically the strange photographs they had taken while inside the Death House. Like us, they had toured the facility happily taking normal, anomaly free photographs but the tenor of their pictures took on a more paranormal flare when they were in the very heart of Saddam’s chamber of death.

 For these phenomena to manifest itself in one specific location in such a prolific manner for two completely different groups at two different times is unheard of. In my opinion it is without question a convergence of documented facts that should make the hair stand up on the back of the necks of any nay-sayers who refuse to believe that the paranormal world co-exists with our own. The only other place that I have visited in my travels that excreted the same kind of melancholy and sometimes malevolent psychic energy I found at Abu Ghraib was the Concentration Camp at Dachau, Germany. I can assure you I will never forget either visit.    

Abu Ghraib prison, known to the Iraqis as “Saddam’s Torture Central” was taken from the annals of relative obscurity and thrust into the public limelight by a scandal that rocked the foundations of the U.S. military.  As brutal and egregious as these acts were, they pale in comparison to the despicable crimes Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay committed against the Iraqi people.

 During his reign of terror, Saddam imprisoned thousands of people, many without charges, within the walls of Abu Ghraib.  The former inmates who lived long enough to finally see a free Iraq tell stories of how the guards beat and tortured them or fed them pieces of shredded plastic. It was not until Amnesty International began to investigate Abu Ghraib that the true horrors of life inside the prison’s walls became known to the rest of the world. 

In 1984 alone, more than 4000 prisoners entered Abu Ghraib and were never heard from again, their voices silenced by a visit to Saddam’s “Death House”.  As the years ticked away, the murder of innocent Iraqis continued at the prison unabated by world opinion or pressure until the U.S. lead invasion ousted Saddam in 2003.  Invariably all of this death, hatred, and emotional distress were absorbed by Abu Ghraib itself, creating an impermeable barrier between this world and the next. Abu Ghraib became a prison for the dead as well as the living.

But from the ashes rise the Phoenix. Gone are the days of torture and death at Abu Ghraib.  Following several intense inquiries into the 2003 scandal, sweeping changes were made at the prison. The soldier living areas were vastly improved and safeguards put into place to preserve the safety of those detained there. The “old guard” was replaced with better trained and better equipped soldiers.  These brave men and women strap on their body armor everyday and face not only a defiant insurgency but also the constant reminders of the prison’s haunting past. Here in the desert just a scant few miles away from Baghdad, the ghostly images of Abu Ghraib’s former inmates refuse to remain silent.  It is a place where the sweat and blood of hero’s co-exist with a lineage of tears and pain making “Saddam’s Torture Central” one of the most haunted locations in all of Iraq.  


Note: * Name changed to preserve the speakers true identity.

© Copyright 2005 by David Goodwin. All Rights Reserved.