IN LORTON REFORMATORY, behind the barbed wire and the looming guard towers, the van pulled up to the chapel and we got out -- Sister Paige, Brother Frog and me. We walked in and down to the well of the brick church, Sister Grace Paige and Brother Leroy Walters, known as "the Frog," leading the way. The prisoners were waiting. It was a trap.

This was going to be the moment of the day when Sister Paige, brought back from a cancerous death by stupendous faith and maybe a little medicine, would do her preaching. Brother Frog, the most unlikely convert of them all, a Lorton prisoner until just September and in the "hole" so often it was his second home, was clutching his Bible, about to transport himself into the sweet ecstasy he now finds in prayer.

She is something of a celebrity, this Sister Paige. At the guardhouse it becomes apparent. Right at the entrance, a guard high in the tower yells down to her, shouting a greeting. The gate opens and in the little entrance building she is welcomed like a television personality. She has, in fact, just been on television -- Sunday or Monday, no one is sure. She is hugged and kissed and she smiles and smiles and smiles -- a wonderful, warm, sincere smile. Sister Paige loves people.

In the entrance building, she hobbles around on legs made uneven by the cancer. She is a black woman, in her 40s, mother of four and wife to one, dressed this day all in browns -- brown skirt and brown blouse and brown vest and high brown boots.

She had this dream once. She dreamed for three nights in a row that God called upon her to work with the "bad boys of the street" and so she did. She lured them into her house with free hot dogs and then, eventually, she followed them to Lorton.

She visits several times a week now, being paid by no one, representing no church, wearing out cars, leaving her one new station wagon for dead just recently. She needs a van. She just knows she will get one. Sister Paige, I should tell you, believes in miracles.

In the administration building, she is greeted by everyone who sees her. Brother Frog, clutching his Bible and dressed in green dungarees, ambles down the hallway, smiling serenely. He is like the alumnus come back for the day, only he comes here often and everywhere he goes someone tells you about how bad he once was. There is a friendly atmosphere about the administration building -- something very unprison-like. It is a speacial place, sure, not the place where you're likely to find the ordinary prisoner, but still there is not even the sort of tension you're likely to find in the office of a high school principal.

A Muslim prisoner approaches. He is dressed in white pants and gray, hooded sweatshirt. His face is wan and bearded and he is wearing dark glasses. He has come to tell me of Sister Paige. "I've seen a lot of people here get disappointed and disgusted and stop coming," he says. "She keeps coming, she's inspired a lot of people. I know some of them personally." He is, for your information, a bank robber.

At the chapel, the men are waiting. There are at first six, later seven of them, and I plan to hang back, observe, take notes and watch while Sister Paige conducts her prayer service. She has other plans, but I do not know this and the first hint I get is when I find myself in a circle. The time has come to pray and I am asked to join. I cannot, I say. I will not, I say. They hold hands anyway, swinging their arms back and forth, praying and thanking, building a rhythm, sustaining it and then slowing it down until it stops. Sister Paige by now is crying, big fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Brother Frog looks transported.

I sit down on a pew and get ready to watch, but they turn to me, the prisoners do, and they talk to me. They tell me about their conversations and about themselves. There is, for instance, a man named Dennis Stanfield, here for second degree murder, here for 10 years already. He is a handsome man, the father of children, in love with a woman, 33 years old and no longer a kid. His mother, he says, is getting older and his daughter is getting older and life is just slipping away. He tells me his father once was here and mentions childhood visits.

"I couldn't wait to come here to see him," he says. "I thought this was where you found love. The first and fourth Sunday of the month -- I thought this is where you found love."

One by one they tell their stories. Anderson, who is here for manslaughter, talks about his wife, and Fletcher, who said he led a "foolish life," talks about his, and slowly we work our way around the circle. One by one these cardboard figures called "prisoners" collapse and men take their place -- men who somehow don't seem to belong in prison. The last to speak is the last man to arrive, a huge prisoner named William Rindgo. He is doing 40 years to life. He will be eligible for parole when he's 81.

He stands and turns to me. He says they put this together quickly for me -- an instant prayer session. There usually are more men here, but most of them are working now. He comes closer and looms over me -- a big, black man with a goatee. His voice is deep and booming. What about me? he asks. What do I see?

The group turns, looks. Sister Paige smiles. Brother Frog rocks back and forth on his chair. I hesitate. I am somewhat ashamed to say what I am thinking. Rindgo insists and I say that they are not the men I expected to find in prison, not the "animals" I thought I would find as a backdrop for the Sister Paige story. I did not use that word -- animal -- but they knew what I meant. Sister Paige smiles some more.

"Tell them that in the paper," someone said. "Tell them about Lorton." I said I would and then they all rose and joined hands again and this time Rindgo led the prayer. They prayed hard, swinging their arms, and Sister Paige cried and Brother Frog looked high and when they were finished we left and went out the gate and there, up on the tower, was a guard. Sister Paige waved and Brother Frog waved and I just stared.

He was holding a rifle.