When Marvin Mandel appeared before a federal judge to plead for a reduction of his four-year prison term, he described the hardship imposed on him and his family by his many days in court.

"Two-and-a-half years ago, my life ended," said the former Maryland governor. "No prison with walls can be tougher than the prison we've been in already."

That theory may never be tested. The federal prison camp here at Eglin, where Mandel today is scheduled to begin a three year term for mail fraud and racketeering, has no walls.

By prison standards, life here is not too tough. Country club is the term most often used to describe it. The closest thing to a wall is a stylish cypress privacy fence that separates the camp from the Air Force residential area 50 yards away. There are facilities for sports ranging from miniature golf to soccer, and the sun shines almost every day here in the Florida panhandle.

The most widely heard complaint among the inmates is that the four tennis courst simply aren't enough to accommodate the 360 prisoners. If that hardship becomes unbearable, an inmate can look forward to a nice furlough program -- up to five days at a time away from the place.

Observed one well-tanned and fit-looking inmate, "Six months here wouldn't hurt anybody."

Camp Superintendent Larry Kerr has been on the job only a month-and-a-half, but already he is sensitive about the prison being referred to as a "country club."

"Other than the geographic location, we have nothing different here from any of the other minimum-security installations in the federal system," said Kerr.

The camp is located on the nation's largest Air Force base, a sprawling, 720-square-mile complex 60 miles east of Pensacola, circled by pine forests and saltwater bayous.

Ten miles south is the Gulf of Mexico and a beatiful stretch of beaches -- a 60-mile "Miracle Strip" of rolling dunes and sugar-white sands, still relatively uncluttered by the high-rise condominiums that choke South Florida.

It is a popular retirement community, particularly for the military, and a favorite vacation area for tourists. Summer temperatures range from 70 to 91 degrees; winters are brief but mild. The sun is out 340 days in the average year.

But according to Kerr, an inmate of the prison camp gets little chance to enjoy the area's touristy atmosphere. The vast majority of the inmates work a 40-hour week, most of them farmed out daily for blue-collar labor on the air base. Most are up at 7 a.m., back at the prison camp by late afternoon and in their bunks for lights-out at 10:30. They are allowed weekend visitors, occasional overnight passes and -- within a year of their release date -- five-day furloughs. They usually wear the prison uniform of light blue shirts and navy pants.

No alcoholic beverages are permitted on the installation. The most popular recreational activity is softball, though the camp has its share of pool and card sharks, as well as a cable television hookup. There is also a soccer field -- a bit soggy this spring -- two handball courts and softball fields. Inmates can take junior college courses on the base in the evening, at their own expense.

If an inmate is particularly notorious, officials find him a job inside the prison compound. There was, for example, inmate 25231-145. E. Howard Hunt worked his way up from laundry sorter to laundry clerk during his 13-month term here, and learned abstract painting from a fellow inmate in his spare time.

In order to qualify for incarcerration at any minimum-security camp, a convict must be nonviolent, healthy and relatively trustworthy. Well over half of the prisoners here are doing time for drug-related offenses, according to Kerr, and white collar crimes brought 15 to 20 percent of the inmates here. tThe average sentence is three years, of which most prisoners serve 13 to 15 months before being paroled. The average age is 34.

According to Kerr, the number of doctors and lawyers in camp is small, but one inmate offered another view. "There are enough of them in this place," he quipped, "to hold weekly meetings of the AMA and ABA."

Theoretically, the kind of person who is sent to the Eglin facility will not attempt to escape. But there are bad apples in every barrel, so escapes do occur, about once a month, according to Kerr.

In a recent incident, a prisoner, spared the inconvenience of sawing through bars or tunneling under walls, simply walked away in the middle of the night.

The arrangement between the prison and the Air Force base is symbiotic. The base gets a pool of free workers. The prison camp receives supplies and equipment from the Air Force, and top prison officials live in base housing.

The camp itself operates on a yearly budget of $1.9 million. That breaks down to a cost of $13 a day per prisoner, according to Kerr.

"The impression is that we have a lot of luxuries here," said Kerr. "Actually, we are keeping the men at a much lower cost than at other kinds of facilities."

A walk through the camp would be a nostalgic experience for anyone who has spent time in the armed forces. Most of the buildings are remodeled World War II-vintage wooden barracks, neatly arranged around a close-cripped lawn dotted with palm trees, shrubbery, flowers and live oaks heavy with Spanish moss. The prison cafeteria resembles a boot camp's buffet-style arrangement of chrome, plastic flowers and plastic tablecloths. A recent supper menu consisted of vegetable beef soup with croutons, fiesta burgers, onion rings, french fries, mixed vegetables, salad and assorted desserts.

Four recently-built concrete block dormitories can house 96 inmates a-piece.

Each prisoner sleeps in a small, semiprivate cubicle equipped with a bunk bed and a built-in metal bookshelf and locker. Air Force energy-saving guidelines prohibit air conditioning in the dorms.

The prison's only two cells -- used for disciplinary purposes -- are in the administration building.

But walls and bars do not a prison make, according to Kerr. "You just can't understand until you've served time," said Kerr. "There are no fences or walls here, but the loss of freedom is very real."

"I can't tell you that I'm crazy about this place," said an inmate. "But if I have to be in prison, I'm glad I'm here and not elsewhere."