Judy Wyant, soft-spoken mother of three and eight-year-old boys, got a Mother's Day present from her husband last year that was distinctive: a 357-magnum pistol.

It's for target practice, to improve her marksmanship, which could be an asset in her line of work.

Wyant, 34, is the first and only woman to run a men's prison facility in Virginia, and the possibility of violence is part of the job. If a riot were to break out, she would be the one responsible for quelling it. If an inmate escaped, she would be expected to lead a search. If a running convict ignored an order to halt, she might he the first to shoot.

"I'm sure I'm supposed to say I wouldn't have any problems with that," said Wyant. "I don't know if I would or not."

She took over a month ago as boss of Road Camp 26 at Haymarket, a medium security facility that sprawls over 42 acres of farmland in Prince William County and exists mainly to provide cheap inmate labor to the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation.

The 90 men incarcerated there live in dormitory-style barracks erected in the days when Virginia's convict camps were meant to be easily-dismantled transient structures. The place resembles an old Army camp, but with bars on the windows, guards at the doors and a security fence around its perimeter. Some people say it's no place for a woman.

"You get a lot of this," Wyant said irritably. "People say in a riot (I) couldn't physically break up a fight. Well, I don't see a superintendent's job as that. I see it more as management, and so does the (Corrections) Department."

The Haymarket camp's new boss says she is taken aback by the publicity her appointment has stirred. She thinks the media should be making a fuss instead about her husband. Dennis Wyant, a blind veteran just named by the president to be deputy assistant secretary of labor for veterans affairs.

"Really, this is no big deal," she said, referring to her own appointment to the $16,400-a-year position.

As a graduate student in the early 1970s, specializing in counseling, Wyant briefly joined a group at Wright State University in Ohio expousing prison reform. She no longer recalls why she joined, but the association stirred an interest in helping inmates. Correspondence with several prisoners convinced her that behind the walls, inmates believed there was no one they could trust.

"I saw myself as being able to keep their confidence. And I liked working with inmates. Most of they are pretty interesting people," she said. Wyant began her prison work when she moved to Washington area five years ago and got a job counseling inmates at the Lorton prison.

Most of Haymarket's inmates spend their days tending the highways, digging ditches, filling potholes and picking up roadside trash, in return for a maximum $10 a week, including pay incentives.

Despite the controversy that has at times surrounded convict labor, Wyant thinks roadwork is better for inmates than confinement to a cell.

"And I hate to say this, but a lot of inmates feel that way too," she said.

Three years ago, Wyant who lives in Bethesda, decided that if she wanted a career in corrections, the next step on the career ladder was superintendent.

Twice she applied for the Haymarket job, and twice Richmond passed over her, depsite her nomination by a selection committee of fellow superintendents.

"If we inmates had had our way, she would have been here a long time ago," said one Haymarket inmate serving a life sentence for murder who knew Wtant from her days as prison counselor. "Whe has had a continuous, uphill fight. The males always beat her out because (official-dom) felt they needed someone with muscle, because of the stereotype that you have to be tough and hard because this is a jungle."

Earlier this year, the Haymarket superintendent's position became vacant. A new regional prison administrator E. W. Murray, saw the Haymarket vacancy as an opportunity to import new people. Wyant was "the best one," he said.

The Wyant appointment reflects a new mood in the corrections department, said assistant director Robert Landon. "Ladies sitting on the veranda waiting for Rhett Butler to ride by-those times have changed. The South has changed, and the time has come," he said.

In her short tenure at Haymarket, Wyant has made her presence felt, several guards and inmates say. Her decision to reverse a predecessor's ban on craftwork and recreation equipment in the prison dormitories made her popular, one inmate, Thomas Clayton, said, while guard Bobby Brewster figures that his new boss is easier to work with and talk to than a male superintendent. CAPTION: Picture, Judy Wyant, first female warden of Haymarket road camp, at gate of 42-acre facility. By Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post