At first glance, the photograph could be of a hospital bed. The sheets look crisp and clean. A white curtain hangs nearby. The linoleum floor shines. But no one gets well while lying on this bed.

Alan Pogue photographed this execution room in a Texas prison; it's one of many prison images he has captured since 1972. The photo is part of his exhibit "Looking in the Mirror: Society Behind Bars," currently at the Washington Center for Photography. Pogue works as a volunteer photographer for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), the exhibit's co-sponsor.

Pogue decided to start documenting prison life after some firsthand experience. In 1968, he returned to Austin after serving in Vietnam and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He also started snapping pictures for a local alternative newspaper.

"Between those two activities, I managed to get arrested three times," he says. "Through my political activities, I was sensitized to prison conditions." He describes the jail he was in as "dungeonlike," a sea of concrete and green metal whose occupants lived on a diet of cold coffee, white bread and beans.

"I was supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor," says Pogue, 53, who grew up in an upper-middle-class Texas family. But the "terrible gratuitous slaughter" he witnessed in Vietnam changed those plans. Pogue became a freelance photographer, working for a variety of groups that champion social causes. He has shot photos for CURE and for Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based organization that ferries medical supplies to Iraq and seeks to educate the public about the effects of sanctions there.

Early on in his career, Pogue documented prison conditions in conjunction with a lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, that eventually resulted in widespread reform of the Texas prison system. Although Pogue and his camera have traveled to prisons around the country, including Washington, he keeps a close eye on the incarcerated in his home state.

"Texas is a mean-spirited state," Pogue says. "The prison system used to be the Texas Department of Corrections. Now it's the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. That's meaningful to me."

Pogue is interested in something he believes Texas is not: prisoner rehabilitation. His black-and-white photographs present a compelling argument for educating the incarcerated.

One of his photos depicts a beginning reader's picture dictionary propping open a cell door. Another shows a prisoner happily practicing flower arranging. Jail is a "tremendous opportunity for people to learn a skill, learn to read and get a GED," Pogue says. "But the programs are underfunded, and the prison guards still have too much power."

The raw photographs in "Looking in the Mirror" are paired with a booklet compiled by Pogue that throws out a mix of dismal and uplifting information about America's prisons. One of the more depressing shots depicts a prisoner bathed in shadows, wearing only his underwear, his eyes shut tight. On the table before him lie a loaf of white bread and a paperback book titled "Star Dreams."

Another image captures a group of youths pushing against the bars of a cell, all mugging for the camera. The booklet explains that the teenagers are kept separate from the adults to help prevent prisoner rape. A third picture shows a prisoner and a boy intent on a game of foosball. Pogue took this shot at the pre-release program in Rockville.

Pogue is dedicated to portraying his subjects as regular people. His images include mundane shots of jail life--a mother talking at a pay phone, a religious service and a meeting of the elected inmate council.

"I don't want to reinforce everyone's stereotypes," Pogue says. "People who are in prison aren't a different species. They are just like us."

"Looking in the Mirror: Society Behind Bars" runs through July 24 at the Washington Center for Photography, 406 Seventh St. NW. There will be a gallery talk tonight at 7. For information, call 202-737-0406, or visit the gallery's Web site, www.wcp.org.

Arts Bit

Anyone with $5 can snag a 2-foot-by-2-foot spot on the District of Columbia Art Center's wall for the gallery's annual fund-raiser, "Wall Mountables." Participants can swing by the gallery and hang their works today and tomorrow between 2 and 6 p.m. The show opens tomorrow and runs through Aug. 22. For information, call 202-462-7833.

The Galleries column will return.

CAPTION: Taken at a jail outside Dallas, 1984. "Texas is a mean-spirited state," photographer and prison reform activist Alan Pogue says.

CAPTION: Another 1984 photo from the same jail. The title of the paperback is "Star Dreams."