Seventeen past and present Lorton prison inmates have filed suit against the District charging that the danger inmates face from each other's attacks violates their constitutional rights.

Contending that Lorton inmate violence is unchecked and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the two class action suits ask money damages for all inmates of the prison's maximum and medium security facilities.

In addition, the suits, filed for the prisoners in the past few days in U.S. District Court here by lawyers from Covington & Burling, one of Washington's major law firms, call for immediate action to protect inmates from attack.

The suits appear to be the first attempt in years to use the courts to improve conditions for the 1,400 to 1,500 inmates at the two Lorton facilities. In their emphasis on protection from assault, they differ from suits filed in recent years on behalf of inmates at the D.C. jail and prisons in other states, which have largely concentrated on such issues as crowding, food, medical treatment and the like.

One of the suits was filed by 12 inmates of Lorton's maximum security fcility who were allegedly placed in administrative segregation after refusing to return to their cells following the stabbing of an inmate in April.

Most of them allegedly demanded that they not be required to return to there cells before the cells were searched properly for weapons.

The second suit was filed by two maximum security inmates and by three persons in the D.C. jail. At least two of the three were transferred to the jail after they alleged they were attacked in Lorton's medium security facility.

The suits charge that at least 400 serious assaults have been reported at Lorton in the past six years and that more have gone unreported because of fear of retaliation.

Claiming that inmates are in constant jeopardy, the suit alleges that a major reason is the city's failure to provide enough adequately trained guards.

A spokesman for the D.C. corrections department said he had not seen the suits and could not comment on a matter under litigation. He said all reported attacks at Lorton are investigated.

The federal government, which has ultimate custody of Lorton prisoners, is also named as defendant in the suit.