In the fall of 1973, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew accused the Justice Department of trying to force him to quit by leaking damaging information to the press. Agnew, about to resign because of bribery and tax-evasion charges against him, sued the Justice Department and subpoenaed several reporters. This is is how the case got to be called Agnew v. Cohen, and this is how I almost went to jail.

By alphabetical accident, I was scheduled to be the leadoff witness. Since I was not going to reveal my sources, I expected to be held in contempt and jailed. I had several questions for the Justice Department officials: Would I be separated from other prisoners or thrown in with them? Would I be given special treatment because of the special nature of my offense, or would I be treated like someone arrested for a mugging? Would I -- could I? -- be attacked, beaten or raped? I thought the answer to those questions would be "probably not," but it was the "probably" that bothered me. I was scared. I had reason to be.

If, as Samuel Johnson said, the prospect of one's hanging sharpens the mind, then the prospect of one's jailing focuses attention on the condition of the jails. Suddenly, all the horror stories about violence and sexual abuse took on a chilling immediacy. It was one thing to be deprived of my liberty for a fixed period of time. It was quite another thing to be physically or sexually abused. If a judge sentenced a criminal to such punishment -- "You will be beaten, raped and live in terror . . ." -- the community would not tolerate it. But for many inmates that, in essence, is their sentence.

Certainly that seems to be the case for many District of Columbia prisoners. In a one-month period, juries here returned two $1 million verdicts after finding the prison system negligent in either the death or injury of an inmate. Early this month, a jury awarded a Lorton inmate, Daniel Bethel, $1 million after a 1985 incident in which he was stabbed in the neck by another inmate and left paralyzed. In September, a similar amount went to the estate of a man who died while in D.C. Jail for observation. In both cases, the juries faulted the prison system for failing to provide adequate supervision, protection or medical treatment.

What's surprising about the incidents is not that they happened -- they are commonplace both here and elsewhere -- but that juries were sympathetic to the prisoners. Prisoners, after all, are not widows or orphans, and innocent -- as in innocent victim -- is not an adjective that comes to mind. Both juries seemed to conclude that the incidents were not accidents in the truest sense of the word -- unforeseen events -- but the inevitable result of the way the city runs its prison system. Indeed, for about 20 years, one study commission after another has been telling the District that its jails are a disgrace. They are overcrowded and out of control. Last summer, for instance, 860 inmates were given early releases because of overcrowding. Nearly 50 of them had been convicted of violent crimes and 29 of a variety of sexual offenses.

As for who really runs the D.C. prison system, or key parts of it, a Justice Department report answered that question: the inmates. There are dormitories at Lorton where corrections officers do not dare venture. The place belongs to the inmates but not, of course, to all of them. The strongest and the most violent are in control. At one Lorton facility, nearly a quarter of the inmates are in protective custody -- removed from the general prison population for their own safety. They are the lucky ones. Still others are on a waiting list -- undoubtedly hoping to make it into protective custody before they are either killed or injured.

It would be unfair to blame the prison situation only on Mayor Marion Barry. In the first place, the District's jails are on a par with those of many other jurisdictions. Second, Congress is again playing back-seat driver, second-guessing the city on the location of a new jail. Third, overcrowding is a problem that pre-dates the Barry administration. But already this year, juries have awarded $2 million in negligence awards. That's money the city would have been wiser to have spent on hiring more corrections officers and running a better jail system.

A civilized society has obligations even to criminals. The Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment," yet it is doled out all the time. A judge sentences with specificity -- so much time in a certain kind of jail. But then the criminal is put into an institution where the government allows the inmates themselves to impose their own punishments -- often cruel and unusual by any standard. We all know this happens, but most of us give it no thought, do nothing about it and fail to hold government officials accountable for the barbarism of our jail systems. The whole rotten system is sunk into a foundation of public indifference.

On the day I was scheduled to face a judge who had already proven himself hostile to the press, Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to a tax-evasion charge and resigned the vice presidency. His suit against the Justice Department was suddenly moot, and I was never called to the stand. I was never held in contempt, never handcuffed, never led out of the courtroom and never locked in a jail where, in the night, I feared I would hear the menacing shuffle of approaching feet. That never happened to me, but it does happen to others. The shame of our jails shames us all. ::