Aprisoner in D.C. Jail who is accused of conspiring to blow up government facilities has been unable to get prompt medical treatment for a recurrence of a highly curable form of cancer, according to prisoners' rights activists.

The prisoner, Alan Berkman, a physician, has been convicted of conspiracy and now awaits trial with six others charged in a wave of bombings from 1983 to 1985, including the Nov. 7, 1983, bomb blast that ripped through a conference room near the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol.

FBI agents captured the 44-year-old internist in Philadelphia in May 1985. A few months later, a biopsy of his swollen lymph nodes showed that he had Hodgkin's disease, a fairly rare kind of cancer of the blood cells. Radiation treatments at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania brought the disease under control.

On March 19, 1990, a scheduled follow-up CAT scan at D.C. General Hospital showed a large mass in his abdomen, an indication that the cancer was growing again. While Berkman's attorneys, family and friends called for prompt medical attention, it took until May 3 for D.C. Department of Correction officials to arrange a biopsy at Howard University Hospital. It confirmed that Hodgkin's had recurred.

According to general medical practice, patients treated in community hospitals usually receive an immediate and aggressive combination of toxic chemotherapy drugs once a recurrence of the cancer has been detected.

Berkman, however, received no treatment for nearly a month after the biopsy. He was moved last week to D.C. General Hospital, where he began receiving chemotherapy for his Hodgkin's disease on May 31.

Berkman's supporters call him a political prisoner. Berkman calls himself an anti-imperialist and an activist; he has been involved in a wide range of causes and treated wounded American Natives during a 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee, S.D. According to FBI officials, Berkman later joined the radical May 19 Movement, an offshoot of the Weather Underground, which staged a number of holdups to finance their operations.

Berkman was convicted of a conspiracy linked to the 1981 attempted robbery of a Brink's armored car in New York, in which two police officers and a guard died, and sentenced him to 10 years in a federal prison, plus two years for jumping bail in 1983. A Connecticut court sentenced Berkman to five years, served concurrently, for robbing a Cromwell, Conn., food market in 1984.

Two years ago, Berkman was moved from the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., to the D.C. Jail to stand trial on the bombing charges. If Berkman is not convicted of additional crimes, a federal parole board will release him on July 10, 1992.

Berkman's supporters believe that D.C. and federal prison officials have intentionally denied him adequate treatment because of his political status. D.C. Department of Corrections officials deny that Berkman has been refused adequate treatment because of his political beliefs or for any other reason.

"All of our residents have access to the health care system 24 hours a day," said Reginald Jenkins, an internist and assistant director for health services for the D.C. jail system. "Any emergency that is life-threatening is taken care of immediately."

To some prison experts, however, Berkman is just another example of the level of medical care common in any prison rather than being singled out for harsh treatment.

Investigations by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union into conditions at the D.C. Jail and at Lorton found inadequate medical services.

U.S. District Court for D.C. Judge William Bryant wrote in the mid-1980s that medical conditions in the downtown jail "amounted to deliberate indifference to the health care needs of all prisoners . . . Uncontroverted evidence detailed numerous incidents in which prisoners' complaints were ignored and treatment delayed for lengthy periods." Similar problems were found last year at Lorton.

Medical care at the downtown jail has not changed since Judge Bryant criticized it, said Ed Koren, an ACLU attorney with the prison project. "It doesn't work for prisoners. It doesn't provide adequate medical attention, and we are proving it again and again."

Major problems, he said, include record keeping -- which "is fairly chaotic" -- and follow-up care for prisoners with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, which is almost "non-existent."

Jenkins defended the medical care in the D.C. corrections system. "We process more than 20,000 people a year, taking down histories and physicals of every person who comes in." He also is responsible for the general well-being of the jail's 9,700 inmates. "That is a lot of health care to give out," he said.

When a prisoner signs up for sick call, he is seen by a physician's assistant to determine whether a medical problem actually exists. Minor problems can be taken care of in the jail's infirmary, but prisoners with major problems are sent to nearby D.C. General Hospital.

"Every time they {prisoners} sign up, we have to see them," Jenkins said. "In Dr. Berkman's case, he was referred to the oncology clinic," he said, adding that cancer cases in jail are uncommon.

Scheduling delays, however, are common, Koren said.

In a telephone interview from the hospital, Berkman said that he thought some of the delay occurred because the jail and the hospital just could not get organized enough to get him the care he needs. He also blamed federal Bureau of Prisons officials for trying to interfere with his care.

There is no doubt that Berkman is a special prisoner and that because he is considered a high-risk prisoner, his status complicates the logistics of his care. Whenever he moves between facilities, a phalanx of guards with rifles and flack jackets must accompany him.

"Their concern about overall security is a hindrance to medical treatment," said Judy Greenspan, a spokesperson for the Committee for Political Prisoners' Rights in Washington. "D.C. General can't handle the security."

Berkman is currently in a locked prison ward, and the hospital has refused to allow a reporter and photographer in to see him. D.C. General administrator Mark Chastang did not return repeated phone calls.

Meanwhile, it is not known what effect the delay in treatment will have on Berkman's prognosis. Hodgkin's disease is an unusual cancer of the lymph node system, a part of the body's defense against infections, which strikes between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans each year. The cancer spreads throughout the lymph nodes and to other organs, such as the liver, lungs and bone marrow. Death usually comes from infection or by uncontrollable internal bleeding.

For all forms of Hodgkin's disease, said Eli Glatstein, chief of radiation oncology at the National Cancer Institute, "the cure rate is probably around 75 percent at five years." The prognosis is heavily dependent on the stage of the disease, he said. Early in the disease, the cure rates approach 90 percent; in later stages, that drops to around 50 percent.

While most cancer specialists recommend prompt treatment, a delay of several months may not be significant. "I don't think it is beneficial to wait {to start treatment}, but you can't prove that 2 1/2 months makes a difference," said Vincent T. DeVita Jr., physician-in-chief of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the person who developed curative chemotherapy for Hodgkin's in the late 1960s. When it comes to starting treatment, "it's generally the sooner the better."

Survival depends more on the biology of the tumor itself, DeVita said. If the tumor is not bothering the patient, it can grow quite large and be fairly benign, compared to a tumor that grows rapidly and causes symptoms such as swollen nodes, fever and weight loss.

"Dr. Berkman is in good health," Jenkins said. "He looks well. He had no lost weight. He did not have fevers. He is very much concerned about his disease, which anyone would be, but he looks well."

At the same time, postponing treatment for 2 1/2 months has not been easy for Berkman's wife and 13-year-old daughter.

Said Barbara Zeller, Berkman's wife, 44, and also an internist: "We are just trying to not have them {prison officials} convert a 12-year sentence into a death sentence by these kinds of delays."