A prisoner awaiting a hearing in D.C. Superior Court escaped from a basement cell block when he apparently forced open a screen and walked past courthouse security guards, the U.S. Marshals Service said yesterday.

U.S. Marshal for the District Herbert Rutherford said James Miller, 30, of 1416 Third St. NW escaped from the cell block between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday before guards knew he was gone.

"We feel he was able to kick down a wire mesh screen and was able to get out, unbeknownst to my people," Rutherford said.

Miller has been arrested several times since 1978 in the District, Maryland and Virginia for offenses ranging from shoplifting to armed robbery, Rutherford said.

Suspects arrested in the District are held in the cell block in the custody of the Marshals Service before their court appearances, but Rutherford said he did not know if other prisoners were in the cell block when Miller escaped.

Rutherford declined to say if Miller, who was dressed in street clothes, left the cell block through a door or a window, but added that the escape route Miller appears to have taken would have required him to walk through a public hallway before leaving the building.

Rutherford said he also could not explain why detention officers didn't discover Miller's escape sooner.

"I don't really know," Rutherford said, "But the cell block is not like a jail, there are people coming in and out of there. It's not like you can run a head count every hour."

Miller had been free on a $5,000 bond after being arraigned at the courthouse in connection with a March 6 armed robbery charge in the District, according to records filed in D.C. Superior Court. On March 29, a warrant charging him with shoplifting in Towson, Md., was issued for his arrest, the records show, and he was arrested Sunday.

Rutherford said that Miller's escape was the first from the cell block and measures have been taken to prevent a recurrence.