The General Accounting Office has begun a nationwide investigation into the employment of prisoners through a special federally funded jobs training program to determine whether abuses similar to those found at Lorton Reformatory are occuring in other parts of the country.

The investigation, now in its preliminary stages, was requested by Rep. John J. Cavanaugh (D-Neb.), who last month disclosed that the District of Columbia paid more than $200,000 to 27 felons at Lorton last year. Some of those paid were not eligible to be released for another 8 to 24 years.

The jobs program, known as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), permits inmates in prison as well as persons in half-way house and on work-release programs to be eligible for the funds, which Congress set aside to train and help employ disadvantaged persons.

Cavanaugh alleged, however, that the District violated CETA regulations by paying thousands of dollars in CETA job-training money to persons who learned skills they could not use in the outside world "within a reasonable time."

In one instance cited by Cavanaugh, one inmate earned $9,833 as a plumber, but was not eligible for release before the year 2003. Others were not eligible for release before 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1991.

All the 27 prisoners received 5 1/2 percent cost-of-living wage increases and earned vacation time, but continued to be charged only the $2 a day room and board fee assessed all employed inmates at Lorton.

D.C. Corrections Director Delbert C. Jackson Defended the Prison jobs program generally, but conceded in the wake of Cavanaugh's inquiry that paying such funds to long-term prisoners "did exceed the bounds of reasonableness - no question about that."

In March, after inquiries from Cavanaugh, Mayor Marion Barry imposed new regulations, reducing the maximum annual payment for prisoners from $11,066 a year - the amount allowed CETA persons outside of prison - to $6,561, the same as a beginning GS-1 level employe.

The new regulations also prohibit persons not eligible for release within 18 months from taking part in the program.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor said yesterday that as many as 150,000 "offenders" across the country receive funds through the CETA program. Between 70 and 174 persons were said to be on the Lorton CETA payroll before Barry's new regulations were imposed.

The Labor Department spokesman could not say how many of those persons were incaracerated in prisons rather than on bona fide work release programs or assigned to halfway houses or prerelease centers.

Cavanaugh said the investigation would be "universal in scope" but complicated by the fact that it could be hard to identify prime sponsors of the programs and difficult to determine which persons actually were in jail.

Cavanaugh estimated that the probe by GAO, the investigatory arm of Congress, would last a year.