Gregory, a black youth who has the physique of a well-tuned boxer, sat nervously on a sofa during a recent party to celebrate the opening of an office simply called New Start.

As 21-year-old Gregory watched the group of mostly white people milling about the room, carrying glasses of wine and talking to each other, he began thinking about his life before he was paroled from the D.C. Lorton Youth Correction Center.

Six months ago, he was in Youth Center Two at Lorton serving time for armed robbery. Like many of his fellow inmates, he didn't care about much of anything, including himself.

Going to Lorton, Gregory said, was "like going to hell." He remembers being awakened several times by boiling water that was tossed over him by fellow inmates, or by fires set in his bed. "They (the prisoners) thought it was a joke," Gregory said.

Enter Ann Smith. Somith is a volunteer with New Start, a new tutorial and counseling program at Lorton.

Smith, a middle-aged Montgomery County resident, said she was not put off by the description guards gave of Gregory. "They said he was unteachable, that he was bad news and that he behaved like an animal when he got drunk."

Their relationship began slowly. "He wouldn't talk," Smith said, "he would just sit there and look at me."

But through Smith's patience, Gregory began opening up.

"She came to visit every Friday," Gregory said, "when no one else would come and talk to me. That lady got me to start believing in myself."

Jan Zuckerman, director of the program, said New Start now has 50 volunteers giving individual instruction to inmates. Many of the original volunteers are like Smith, a close friend of Zuckerman's who spent four years in the prison visitor program before joining New Start.

New Start, which has been operating several months, recently opened an office at 2311 18th St. NW to continue training for prisoners released from Lorton.

The impetus for the program came from a study that showed education, more than anything else, was what young inmates wanted from the prison program. A cornerstone of New Start is providing that education through individual help.

"Although Lorton already provides academic instruction and vocational training (in classroom settings)," Zuckerman said, "the institution could not meet the needs of prisoners who require special one-to-one attention."

Lorton has a wide age range of prisoners, but New Start was created to help prisoners in the two Lorton youth centers. A program spokesman said New Start, which is funded by a $12,500 grant from The Meyer Foundation, may be expanded in the future to include other prisoners.

New Start first began in Youth Center One, where young prisoners are held in protective custody, Zuckerman said. They have been placed there, she explained, usually because they have been assaulted or threatened by other prisoners.

Zuckerman, who is on a first-name basis with many of the young inmates, admits that New Start has not been operating long enough to determine its success. That will be judged partly by how many "students" return to Lorton or to other correctional institutions.

Some students, like Gregory, already consider the program a success. although Gregory was paroled before Smith could provide im with much instruction in basic subjects such as reading, he said Smith convinced him he should return to school.

Gregory, who now works as a dishwasher, said he has been in and out of correctional facilities since he was 12. He said he knows that he is not earning much money, $2.90 an hour, to support himself and his daughter, but he says he is staying away from his "old friends and alcohol" and trying to change his life. "I just want society to give me another chance."

Gregory said New Start and Smith gave him the ticket to that chance.

"I've discovered I'm a man," he said, "and I can make it without stealing -- I love the hell out of her. My family didn't come to visit because they didn't believe I could make it out in society."

According to program spokesman David Armour, volunteers are carefully screened.

"We look for fairly balanced people who are mature," he said.

Armour added that so far there have been no problems between inmates and tutors, such as violence on the part of an inmate.

"Frankly," he said, "we haven't considered the possibility. We go in as friends and we are treated that way."

On Jan. 10, an employee at the youth center allegedly was raped by a 24-year-old inmate serving time for rape. A spokeswoman for New Start said it was an "isolated incident" and that the organization was not alarmed.

Armour pointed out that the New Start group believes prisoners who volunteer for the program are fairly serious from the beginning.

One volunteer, Alec MacLaurin, a former District General Services architect, got into the New Start program almost by accident. For several months, he had been taking his wife to Lorton, where she is a tutor.

He finally decided that "it would be a good idea" to be more than a chauffeur.

MacLaurin began by tutoring an inmate in basic drafting skills. Now that the inmate has been paroled, MacLaurin hopes to find him a drafting job.

"That guy really has some skills," MacLaurin said. "If he is given an opportunity he will be successful. He just needs someone to care."

MacLaurin's wife, Helen, is blind and is guided into Lorton by her seeing-eye dog.

But her blindness has not prevented her from helping one inmate learn to read.

Using a book printed in Braille, Mrs. MacLaurin has spent several weeks reading "Roots" to Robert Glenn. He, in turn, reads back the passages from a type-printed book. Because Mrs. MacLaurin follows Glenn's progress from her Braille text, she knows immediately when he has trouble with a word.

"We try to look the words up. I have spent some time with his arithmetic, but he still has a ways to go," she said.

Glenn, who is 22 and was sentenced under the D.C. Youth Act to one-to-three years for robbery, said he was originally placed in a third grade class when he came to Lorton. "I couldn't deal with it," he said. "I wasn't dumb."

Mrs. MacLaurin said: "Robert is a smart boy, he just needs someone to help him."