CLEARWATER, FLA. -- It was a small office packed with legal talent. The three attorneys -- articulate and sharp as pool players to the angles of federal and state laws -- were working the phones on behalf of clients.

This might have been another busy day at any law office in America, except for a jarring difference: The lawyers were criminals who had practices before serving time as inmates in the Florida prison system. Two had been convicted of selling drugs, and one of theft. Each was in the last months of his sentence at the Hillsborough Community Correctional Center and each was involved in one of the country's most innovative prison-employment programs.

The inmates were in the center's offices of PRIDE -- Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc. In the nation's landscape of crime and punishment, cratered with high rates of recidivism and few alternatives to enforced idleness and boredom, PRIDE stands as a refutation of the conventional thinking that prisoners are failures who should, and will, stay that way.

The clients of the three lawyers were fellow inmates who would be released soon, with no more than $100 and a road map. The phone calls were being made to possible employers, so that a job might be waiting on the outside. It's on the inside that PRIDE's success has been proven: PRIDE currently is training 3,052 inmates in marketable skills. Sales from these skills were a record $81 million in the past year, an increase of $14 million over the previous year.

Fifty-six industries -- ranging from making shoes, furniture, eyeglasses and bookshelves to designing modular office systems -- are located at 23 Florida prisons and jails. For many inmate-workers, their prison jobs were the first they ever held. Customers for the prison products include federal, state, county and city agencies and contract vendors. The world wants, and is getting, something more from Florida prisons than license plates.

In the national debate on crime deterrence, with much of the noise coming from politicians shouting for longer sentences, not many are pointing to the obvious: A job can be the greatest deterrent.

Who says that? Each of the inmate-lawyers who spend the day at PRIDE lining up work for men and women on the way out. "The majority of people leaving prison," said one of the lawyer-inmates, a graduate of Emory University law school, "don't have a family, don't have money or a place to stay or food to eat. When they come through this office, we provide them with a good job. That way, they don't need to commit another crime to eat, sleep or get clothes."

At the desk across the aisle, a second lawyer-inmate, who graduated from Fordham University law school, spoke about the extravagance of imprisonment. "My prosecution," he said, "and the cost of my confinement are probably going to cost the state and federal government about $750,000. Had they put me somewhere, like a halfway house and $50 a week to live on, I would have served the same amount of time. It would have been better for me and cheaper for the state. They don't see it that way. Simple minds look for simple answers. More than 90 percent of those now in prison will be out on the street someday. If they have no job skills, society will end up paying the costs one way or the other."

In Florida, those costs include an estimated $112 million a year for 1990-1994 for prison construction alone. This prevails as the national attitude: the pumping of money into hopelessness and the inevitability that new criminals will keep coming in and old criminals keep coming back, and that nothing can change that. One thousand people a week are newly imprisoned in Florida, with 60 percent functionally illiterate and few with any positive job history.

With that clientele, PRIDE is succeeding in the miracle business. It takes society's worst cases, and allows them to earn money that is divided three ways: 30 percent to the inmate workers at 50 cents to $1.15 an hour, 60 percent to the state of Florida for partial reimbursement for imprisonment costs, and 10 percent to victim restitution.

A major asset is that PRIDE pridefully is on its own in the marketplace. It takes no government money and is run as a nonprofit corporation. The main people keeping it honest are the inmates. They have learned that if their program doesn't work on the inside, neither will they on the outside.