She is 5-foot-2 and weighs 98 pounds. Her lipstick is in the right front pocket of her poplin uniform shirt. The dark blue pants are the smallest size the issuing office had. They are men's pants and she had to get them altered. "They don't exactly hand out threes," she says.

In the bag at her feet are:

A toothbrush.

Hair spray.

Instant cocoa mix.

Jane Fonda's exercise book.

She has brought these items to work with her tonight "just in case." She doesn't finish the sentence. She figures it is self-explanatory. Just in case could mean a riot, in which case you don't go home when the shift is through. Comes a riot, you might not see home for awhile, if again.

Hung along the bulletproof glass above her head are 17 olive-colored sacks: eerie ornaments. Encased in each sack is a riot helmet. Chances are about 97 to 3 tonight will be peaceful as a Kansas farm town. But just when you think you know, it blows.

"It's not that different from some other jobs," says Karen Dorsey. "Sure, you see some fights. So you get catcalls on the street, and you get catcalls in here. These people are just locked up. Some of them you get very fond of."

On the yard with Karen Dorsey, prison guard at Lorton: It's not really that big a deal, says the guard herself, though a little later she will add: "You're a fool if you're not aware. Something can always go wrong. I watch myself. I'm careful. But if I ran around scared it would be no place for me to work, would it? So far it's been a pretty quiet camp."

She is sitting on a stool, her legs propped on a scarred metal desktop. Everything in here seems sludge-gray. The light is dim and yellowish, like weak tea in a clear glass. In the drawer below her ankles is a .38 caliber. Among other things she is a good shot, even though she had never fired a gun until they put her on the range at the academy, and then she got adept with a 12-gauge, an M14, a gas gun.

She is not wearing conventional police brogans, but a pair of dark clogs. Technically the shoes probably violate her uniform. "I try not to draw attention to my . . . feet," she says drily.

Karen Dorsey--of a 22-inch waist, looks to kill, and gold rings on her small white ladylike fingers--has been at Lorton since the beginning of 1980. In a gritty male world she is a magnum feminine force. She is not the only female guard at Lorton, though she may be the smallest. It took some getting used to--on all sides.

There are 1,170 correctional officers working at the D.C. jail and the five facilities of the Lorton reformatory. About 300 of that total are women. Women have long been in prison work in America, though rarely at male institutions. It had to come. Women are in cockpits and locker rooms now. At Lorton it began to happen about eight years ago, though only in the last few weeks have female correctional officers been starting to be phased into such jobs as male dormitory searches. The memorandum came down Jan. 19.

"It's the whole business of not discriminating on the basis of sex," says LeRoy Anderson, community relations officer at Lorton. "Sure a woman could get raped in the dorms. But . . . so could a man."

So far nothing irreversible has happened to her. A while ago, working days, an inmate stood behind a glass door in Culinary and exposed himself. It rattled her, but she knew if she flinched then, the word would riffle around the yard: She had freaked. If she lost here, she'd lose everywhere, and if she won here, she might gain some respect for keeps, or at least until the next test. Later that morning she confronted the youth who did it, saying in demure tones something involving amputation that you can't put in a family newspaper. She was just kidding, of course, but that took care of things.

"What could you possibly gain from a job like this?" is one of the questions Karen Dorsey has to put up with these days. She gets the question from neighbors, friends. More than once the question has come from her own relatives. It doesn't really bother her anymore. "You see, people like that live, and never live at all," she says. "I wanted to do this thing because I'd never done it. I just wanted to see what it was like. I want to do everything I've never done. I used to work in a hospital. I think it would be pretty sad if I trotted around a hospital the rest of my life and never did anything else."

'Slick as Sandpaper'

The telephone is ringing in the gatehouse, jangling off the hook, stabbing the night. A pearl of moon hangs beyond the bulletproof glass. The grass is sliced with frost, skimmed with it. It is 1:25 a.m. Officer Dorsey, 98 pounds, is standing the gate. Everybody in or out gets frisked, including the cook and the breadman.

"Do I put a bay leaf in my spaghetti?" she says into the phone. "Yes, a whole large one. Ragu? Then you don't need the bay leaf because it already has one. Okay, bye."

Two minutes later the same ring, the same stab in the night.

"Two pounds. If you're going to make the meatballs. But be sure to drain the spaghetti if you're going to put Ragu sauce on."

Officer Dorsey hangs up. "I don't even know who that was. One of the guards. Wants to make dinner for his girl."

"They're very different on an individual level than they are in groups, of course," she says. She is talking of the residents. "In groups there is always peer pressure. They feel they have to be slick. Well, they're about as slick as sandpaper in the first place. That's why they're here. But in a group somebody is always trying to get over on you. Somebody in the group starts saying, 'Do it, do it.' "

Get over on you is yard talk. It means putting you down, making you look stupid, getting away with an infraction. Residents hate the man who stand over them. But they depend on them, too. They want them to do their job. A guard gets the rep for being a pushover and the whole yard could go down. A guard has to project attitude, control. You do it with words and bearing more than weapons. Riots have started over lesser things than the rattling of a spoon on a metal plate.

There is a pause here, maybe the kind that comes naturally, maybe the kind you learn at the John Robert Powers Fashion & Finishing School on Greensboro Drive in McLean. That's where Karen Dorsey goes on Saturday mornings for courses in makeup, figure, hair and runway modeling. Wouldn't mind getting a career going as a full-time model.

So what does her husband think of his wife working at a prison?

She leans close, mugging. "Guess what?" she says affectionately, "I didn't ask him."

A Job in Blue

Nothing about her seems conventional or predictable--from the get-ups she wears off-duty to the way she gets her exercise (she's fond of parking near National Airport and roller-skating into Old Town Alexandria in a pair of All-American shorts and knee socks and a T-shirt) to the gags she has been known to play at work.

On Easter morning two years ago she showed up for roll call at Lorton as a rabbit in roller skates. She handed out eggs. She was still in her probationary period, and they didn't quite know what to make of it. "The fear of looking silly is what keeps a lot of people from doing things." She doesn't want put on her tombstone: She never had any fun but she was cool.

At 14 she ran away from home on a train, got her own apartment, lied about her age, worked as a soda jerk in Kansas City. She wishes the reporter wouldn't put this in.

She started out thinking her life's work was bacteriology. This was at a hospital in Kansas City. Then she went into respiratory therapy. Then she did scrub work for surgeons in the O.R. She met her husband Mac on a blind date (he was attending the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth), got married, left for Boston. Mac was in 10th Special Forces, she enrolled at Northeastern University in a recreation program. She went to a prison to assess facilities as part of her studies, got fascinated. After Mac was transferred to Washington, she saw an ad in the newspaper for prison jobs. "I thought I wanted to work in the medical or recreational end of prisons, but all they had at the time were jobs in blue. Now I wouldn't trade."

She grew up in the Idaho panhandle and Kansas and some other places. She comes from a fractured family. Her mother has been married five times. She is not proud of this fact, but there it is, and she doesn't flinch from telling it. She never saw her real father until she was 28. A week or so ago she went down to Carolina to visit her grandmother, whom she has seen exactly twice in her life. Her grandmother was on a visit from Alaska.

"I've been on my own all my life. I don't really know anything else, I guess." There is only a fraction of sadness.

Counting Skin

Capt. S. A. Carneal is calling the roll. Capt. Carneal, in charge of the yard tonight, is thin and weary and spit-shined. He is holding a clipboard. Something about him says immediately: Don't try to jerk this guy around. Everybody in the place knows Capt. Carneal. The captain has been on the yard at Lorton 25 years, four years somewhere else. He's up for retirement soon. His body can't adjust to the night shift so quickly anymore. These last couple years, takes him practically the whole six months to get used to nights, and by then the shift has changed. Other things have changed, too. Like letting women in. S. A. Carneal is the old guard, Karen Dorsey is the new guard. He doesn't have anything against Dorsey, you understand--she's quite good at the work, he thinks--it's the principle of the damn thing. Pretty soon some napper-headed liberal fool somewhere who doesn't know anything about prison work will want women to be conducting the strip searches. A strip search is exactly what the term implies.

The captain is calling names, assigning jobs. It is 11:30 p.m., and the shift is signing on. Karen Dorsey and 14 others stand in front of the captain. Dorsey is at attention, her clogs rammed against each other. The others are at semi-attention. First the captain makes some announcements. From now on every resident in the jailhouse has to have a bed tag AND an ID card. He updates a fight. (Argument over a chair.)

"Gatehouse, Miss Dorsey.

"Here," she says, heading for the gatehouse.

At the end of the roll, as everybody is going out, one of the guards says loudly: "I'd just like to say, whoever took my lunch out of my lunch pail, I hope your mother dies before sunrise." The place cracks up.

Capt. Carneal and his executive officer, Lt. Don Baggot, go to control center. Control center is a blur of clicking gates and harsh light and linoleum and old wooden desks and cruddy pastel walls. The captain holds a ring of keys you could knock somebody out with. On the lieutenant's tie is a silver clasp in the form of handcuffs.

"We count every hour," says Baggot. "The first count is the big one."

"That's the skin count," says Carneal.

"Yeah, you don't count a lump in a bed. You count skin. If you don't see skin you feel for it."

"I don't think we've had any murderers in here in a long time," says Carneal.

" 'Cept that one who killed his brother-in-law."

"Yeah, and he didn't mean to."

"I've seen them make weapons out of pork chop bones," says Baggot.

"We had one kid in here we raised from 17 to 25. After he got out, he'd call back and ask how we were."

Capt. Carneal walks the visitor around the yard. He has a gimpy walk. Somewhere in the darkened middle distance a TV blares. "Can't make them go to bed anymore. They can stay up all night if they want." He is carrying a great silver flashlight with a clock-sized face. You could kill somebody with that thing. He isn't wearing a weapon. But he looks fearless.

"If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked why prison guards don't wear weapons . . . " he says wearily, not finishing. "Somebody's been watching too many Humphrey Bogart movies."

The Overnight Shift

Youth Center 2. Officer Karen Dorsey is manning the gate. About 190 males from age 18 to 25 are incarcerated in Youth Center 2. Most of the inmates here are in for burglary and robbery. "Instant money" crimes.

At 3 a.m. tonight Officer Dorsey will go to the tower and spell the man there. What you do up in the white silent box is keep your eyes roaming the fences. The fence is high and barbed and floodlit. You watch for the least movement. The night is strangely beautiful from the tower. You see somebody going beyond the Off Limits sign, you get the bullhorn, pronto. You stop them with certainty is the way the manuals put it. Officer Dorsey has never had to stop somebody going over a fence, but she would know how, she says. The person in the tower also initiates checks. Everybody on the shift checks in every 30 minutes on intercom. The checks go down the line, from station to station: towers to gatehouse to control center to the man slowly driving the perimeter in the blackness in an olive pickup with a 12-gauge resting on the seat beside him.

On last night's shift, the captain assigned her to relief. She stood the mess at breakfast at 6 a.m., and before that, at 4:30, helped with the shakedown at autobody. At the shakedowns you look for "shanks," which is Lorton lingo for knives. The residents will make a shank out of anything--a spoon, a piece of pipe, one leg of a drawing compass. The autobody shop gets shaken down all the time.

At 7:30 tomorrow morning the new shift will come on. At 8 o'clock Karen Dorsey will be free. The low-grade tension of waiting for something to happen, and hoping it never will, will be over again.

In washed daylight, the color of canvas, Karen Dorsey will put on her leather driving gloves, climb in her bone-white Datsun-280Z, and drive wearily home to a townhouse in a sedate Northern Virginia neighborhood. Men will be heading off to jobs in the bowels of Interior and Commerce. Her husband, Mac Dorsey, a lieutenant colonel in the army, will already have left for work. The lady of Lorton will play with her great dane, Kimberly, go through the papers and clip some ads, fall in bed and sleep all day.

The Pursuit of Excellence

A week later, Clyde's restaurant at Tyson's Corner. A white 280Z is in the parking lot. A 5-foot-2 98-pounder has on eye shadow, lipstick. A brown and gold scarf is tied around a tiny forehead. A body is encased in a wild tiger-striped outfit.

Karen Dorsey sits in refrigerator air under leafy ferns among the trendnoids of the world and says this about her life and about Capt. S. A. Carneal, a man on the other side of an era whom she happens to work for:

"It's absolutely different from when I worked in a hospital, though the same rules apply. Why do you like scrubbing for one surgeon? And why do you despise another who is trembling so bad you have to reach out and steady his alcoholic hands? Maybe there are different education levels and different pressures between what I was doing then and what I'm doing now, but there is the same existential and essential striving for excellence. With a guy like Carneal you have the same intuitive brilliance. I don't know, maybe being around him is the reason I stay in. But it isn't going to last."