For most of his 44-years Edward Bunker has lived on the hardside of society. A ward of the state at 4, he became a thief around Los Angeles' tough eastside barrio at 7 and was hooked on heroin by his 15th birthday. Two years later Bunker began his long odyssey through what is euphemistically known as the correctional system until his parole last December.

Today Edward Bunker, lounging on his new orange Italian sportscar along the palm-shaded beaches of Santa Monica, is suddenly one of the nation's rising literary successes. His first novel, "No Beast about prison life, So Fierce" has been sold for paperback publication and will soon appear as a full-length movie starring Dustin Hoffman. Two other major works, already being bid on by studios, are on the way.

"In prison everybody's writing," Bunker says as he lights up a cigarette. "It's conducive to it. You're locked up in a cell at 3:30 in the afternoon until 8 in the morning. There's no neon lights or long-legged fillies to distract you. And there' the state financing you to be a patron of the art."

At Terminal sand, the 1,000-inmate, coed, medium security federal prison where Bunker spent his last term, 20 convicts gather each Thursday in a classroom, hoping to develop, like Bunker, their hidden talents.

The class is taught by ex-con Robert Dellinger, who says he made $100,000 last year selling scripts to such TV shows as "Switch," "Serpico," "The Streets of San Francisco," and "The Blue Knight."

Among the inmates at the class is Sara Jane Moore, the California housewife who, on a sunny San Francisco day back in 1974 tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

Even though her life sentence here would preclude any literary career on the outside in this century, Moore, like the other students, comes to Dellinger's class out of a need to express the frustrations of prison life. "Any time I'm locked up I write," the nervous matronly Moore, 47, explains. "When I first got here the cons said come to this class. At least here you can steal two hours from the bastards. It's not like being in prison when you're here."

At the class, Moore says, she is developing her rhetorical skills, which she first learned reading the works of Mao, Lenin and Marx. "I wrote some politics when I was in the movement. I read a little bit of everything," she says. "But now a lot of what I read means more to me now that I'm in prison. I'm much more comfortable expressing my beliefs now than I was before. Much more."

But for most of the others at this unique class in a barred-up room, the need for letting loose the personal realities of prison outweighs the desire for political expression. They come to their teacher for a skill that will give them something for all the dues they are paying.

Dellinger, 47, is a graying ex-white collar convict from Beverly Hills. A one-time Indiana University track star and highly successful advertising executive, Dellinger says he turned to crime in the desperation of a middle-age crisis. perhaps it was losing his job or the breakup of his marriage, even Dellinger isn't sure, but something snapped his entrenched middle-class morality.

"Everything sort of went to hell in a handbasket," Dellinger recalls. A former account executive for Lockheed Aircraft, he tried to extort $800,000 from four airlines, was caught by the FBI and escaped twice only to be nabbed finally by the California Highway Patrol.

For this college graduate, prison proved to be a revelation. "It knocked all the bull out of me," he explains as he speeds down the brightly lighted San Diego freeway. "In prison you have to clean up your act and that's what I did."

After three months at the Los Angeles County jail - known to its inhabitants as "the dungeon" - Dellinger was transferred to Terminal Island, off San Pedro Harbor. There, in late 1972, he started a class in creative writing, the first ever taught by a convict at the prison.He continued the class after his release in September 1973. More than 300 convicts - including Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy and the talented Ed Bunker - have crammed into the stuffy, barren classroom to try their luck.

"There's a lot of guys in prison who've a lot of interesting things to say," Dellinger says between puffs on his pipe. "Their problem is they don't know how to say it." prison, Dellinger believes, is the ideal place to become a writer.

"The realities of prison life and street life strip away the crap. When kids fight rats and cockroaches for their food for supper it's different than for kids who've had nannies. You can't write 'till you live life."

The regimen of prison life gave Dellinger a way to overcome the stigma later of being a ex-con. After being turned down for more than 100 jobs because of his record, Dellinger in desperation turned to his friend, author and former Los Angeles City Police sergeant, Joesph Wambaugh, who helped him break into the scrip-writing business.

Enjoying his newfound success, Dellinger now lives in a $345,000 apartment building he bought recently in the Venice section of Los Angeles. Yet he still holds on to his prison roots and has two ex-convit buddies, Ed Bunker, and John Carlen, living in his building. "We ex-cons got to stay together," Dellinger says in jest.

But more than camaraderie holds the former inmates together, Dellinger believes all prisoners share something they can give to society - a sense of existential survival unknown to people on the outside.

"Robert is an ex-ad man who knows what he's doing," says Carlen, 31, now a successful screenwriter. "He knows how to get to people. He tells us what to do. He's like a den mother. He watches over us."

The handsome, blue-eyed Carlen says he was born into a whore house run by his grandmother in Dallas, and claims to have made a living for most of his life fulfilling the sexual fantasties of bored, rich housewives.At 26, he switched his act and became a bank robber, which ultimately landed him at Terminal Island. Now Carlen, in conjunction with Dellinger, has already sold his first screenplay in which he draws on his own experiences in the prostitution business.

But the success of Terminal Island's writing class can't be measured simply in terms of stories told or dollars made. For the people still trapped inside the thick concrete walls, the class provides a release from the tedium and brutality of prison. On Thursday nights they pack the class, men and women alike, to read what their long, lonely hours behind bars have given them time to write.

They don't look like the muscle-bound, thick skulled mugs portrayed in most Hollywood prison movies. They are gentle and shy as well as rough and tough, most looking like suburban housewives and workers except for the uniform drabness of their khaki clothes and weatherbeaten canvas sneakers.

'It's hard to be creative, but this is a good place to try," explains Bill Cuddy, a 48-year-old businessman jailed for a stock fraud."At least the joint gives you a little time to kick back and plenty of time to get your act together. If you've got it, this is the place to do it."

Most of the stories read by the inmates center on the criminals' personal experiences. There are tales of black youths robbing cash registers to feed their young families, of stoned-out marijuana dealers dreaming of the ultimate score and reminiscences of what it was like to be in love.

Yet even though they mostly tell of lost riches and aspirations, the prison writers retain and aspirations, the prison writers retain an ability to laugh and even feel good about things that have happened to them. One of them, 43-year-old Ernie Simpson, a burly, tatooed Southern Californian, even tells jokes in his stories about prison. Like a good comic.

In his little recitation before the class, Simpson tells in purposely overstated terms a story about an ex-con mutilating a stool pigeon in the desert. Simpson's characters talk with such histrionics, the tough-guy language of prison, that the other inmates, seeing that they are the real butt of the joke, laugh repeatedly.

When he started in the class two months ago Simpson said he could hardly wite a grammatical sentence. But now he is bringing smiles to his fellow inmates with terse, well-written comedy. While Simpson is still not sure exactly where he is going, he has a firm goal in mind. "I'm going to be a writer when I get out of here," he insisted. "And nothing, and no one, is going to stop me now."