The tedium of prison life is perfectly captured in "On the Yard." Is it ever!

Give or take a quick bludgeoning or swipe on the head with a telephone book, this is not one of your violent jail pictures. Torture is pretty much confined to the inmates' being coerced into participating in group therapy, which is cruel, but not unusual, as practically all films now of all genres contain at least one commercial for psychotherapy. Nor is this a picture about guilt and evil, as little is known of the prisoners' outside life.

It's about the heavy boredom of confined living, in which the smallest treats, gestures of defiance or distractions assume tremendous importance. The swiping of extra canned peaches occasions a wild outburst of joy. Huge fortunes and crushing debts are reckoned in numbers of packs of cigarettes. Power is having someone else bring your laundry by.

The adversaries in this barren scene are a hood named Chilly, played by Tom Waites, and a refined-looking young man who reads books, played by John Heard. Chilly runs the yard, which is to say that he controls minor supplies until the captain decides to curtail this activity. Presumably one's sympathies are supposed to be engaged against Chilly, who deals out blows through subservient prisoners, and in favor of his literary-minded debtor; but the latter has little charm, and the knowledge that he murdered his wife after a quarrel over "nothing" is not endearing. The contrast of their ideas of honor among thieves-or worse-is not significant. There just seem to be a lot of scruffy types in prison.

However, there is one bright moment. A befuddled prisoner who nervously sews turns out really to have created a gigantic balloon that flies. A prison picture crossed with "To Fly"-that seems clever, at least in contrast to the fatiguing routine of the film to that point. But no, it flies by, and back we all are in the yard again.

Only some of us in the audience may be smart enough to escape.

ON THE YARD-Inner Circle.