Dangling frilly lace panties from his coarse fingers, convicted murderer Bernie Meadors leans menacingly into the face of a 14-year-old and curses about hard times and horrors in the Virginia state penitentiary here.

Gruff-voiced, bearded and bullying, Meadows warns that the "young meat" delinquents seated nervously before him "won't be in this place an hour before you'll have one of these on and you'll belong to somebody."

But where inmates in the pen's "Insiders" program try to frighten youths away from further run-ins with the law, inmates at the state farm complex further east give teenage offenders a very different prison greeting.

"Feel safe," Larry Cromartie, an inmate with the James River Correctional Center's Community Involvement Group, begins reassuringly. "You're here because we hope our pasts will not become your futures."

By taking dramatically opposite approaches to a crime problem they know first hand, these Virginia prisoners have embroiled themselves in what has become a national dispute over whether kids should be "scared straight" or "cared straight."

The year-old Insiders program is modeled after the controversial juvenile counseling methods used at New Jersey's Rahway Prison, popularized in the Academy Award winning documentary, "Scared Straight," and quickly emulated in some 30 states around the nation.

Juvenile delinquents in the Virginia program are brought to the penitentiary, confined briefly in a holding cell during "shakedown" and then turned over to 15 inmates who have spent hours practicing how to terrorize them.

In a calculated effort to scare them into shaping up, the youths are shouted at, cursed and stripped to their young, skinny waists. They are threatened with rape, beatings and the total powerlessness that can be part of a prison sentence. And they are told this is their last chance.

"We call it reality therapy," says Cpl. Steven Counts, adviser for the "Insiders." "If it scares them, so be it."

That attitude has captured the fancy of numerous state and local law enforcement officials, among them Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman. "I don't think it can do any harm," Coleman said recently. "If it saves one kid a year, it's worth it."

But the sponsor of the rival inmate-run Community Involvement Group (CIG) at James River, counselor George Mahaffey, says the Rahway program and its spin-offs do a great deal of harm to both the youths and the inmates.

Mahaffey, like other critics, opposes the "scared straight" concept. He argues that it tends to legitimize awful prison conditions, presents "a twisted, warped and demeaning image" of inmates that is chilling to their families and frightens off volunteers from joining prisoner aid programs. t

"They are portrayed as beasts instead of as human beings who have made a mistake," he complains. He also protests that the "cursing, abusing and the threat of bodily harm" is a violation of the law and sets a bad example for kids.

Virginia's problems with juvenile crime are not considered all that severe, according to state authorities. About 8,500 youths are currently under some form of probationary supervision, and another 1,200 are actually living in correctional care centers.

Still, probation officers and other juvenile and school officials have escorted hundreds of youths through the six-year-old CIG sessions and the newer Insiders program. Trips to either prison program are considered preventive medicine, no matter how contrasting the prescriptions.

The Insiders adviser, Counts, says he has even referred borderline juvenile delinquents to the "more appropriate" CIG program, but thinks only the aggressive methods of his group will be effective "for kids with a record as long as my arm."

There has been some controversy, however, not only about the "scared straight" technique but about whether the program really has been successful in straightening out juvenile offenders.

Although some states rushed to embrace the inmate encounters as a cheap cure-all for juvenile crime problems, researchers at Rutgers University later challenged the program's claims of effectiveness. They said a careful follow-up study showed that many of the kids subjected to the Rahway treatment were taken to the prison on class field trips and had never been in trouble with the law since then just as they had never been in trouble with the law before.

"They were taking in the Sunday school classes and bragging about saving them from a life of crime," huffed one "scared straight" detractor.

There was a time when Virginia school officials were sending youngsters to the penitentiary program whose only offense, if any, was truancy. Recent new guidelines now restrict the sessions -- which cause some youths to faint and others to fight -- to offenders with prior juvenile records.

Differences in the two programs are immediately apparent. Juveniles at the pen, for example, are bunched together on a bench in a sweltering basement, introduced to the inmates by their prison numbers only and forbidden to speak unless ordered to. CIG initiates draw their chairs into an informal circle with their inmate hosts, meet them by name and are encouraged to ask questions.

On this day at James River, CIG is holding a session with teen-agers from Hampton. Inmates from the nearby Virginia Correctional Center for Women, who are starting up their own juvenile counseling group, also have joined the meeting.

Haunting introductions clearly draw the line between adult and juvenile crime. Inmates convicted of larceny, armed robbery, murder, drug use, rape, misappropriation of funds and writing worthless checks meet Richard, on probation for arson; Willie, on probation for bringing tear gas to school; Nicholas, who has a history of shoplifting; and a glum teen-ager who will share neither her name nor her offense.

For the next hour there is an exchange of views about crime and its consequences -- and several curious questions about prison life.

The only outburst during the normally low-key gathering comes after one muscular blond youth attributes his minor juvenile record to his temper.

"I had a temper," shouts inmate Lee Stanley. "You'ree lucky, partner, 'cause a year later I was 17 and in jail for murder. I killed a man with a cue stick."

After watching the youth shift selfconsciously in his seat, Stanley offers a more personal warning.

I care, man. I see myself sitting over there where you are when I was 15 years old," he says. "I thought I was tough then, too, but I didn't know what tough was. About three months back, you know, a guy killed a guy here just for patting him on the butt."

Nicholas talks about his shoplifting and how he "started with gangs. We'd go in and come out and compare to see who got the best stuff. I got caught three times."

"I just wanted to go around with my friends and shoot dope," another inmate empathizes. I thought the kids who went to concerts and movies and dances were square -- but they're still out there."

This discussion about friends, plus encouragement from the woman inmate sitting next to her, finally convinces Anna, the sullen teen-ager, to tell her story. She's in trouble for fighting at school . . . to help a friend.

"Friends are very important," agrees inmate William Mullins. "But there are times when you have to be your own best friend."

The inmates -- who encourage the kids to stay in school and make concrete plans for the future -- describe prison routine, what they wear and eat and the risks of such tight confinement.

"I've seen guys get stabbed over whose turn it was to play basketball," says CIG president Larry Cromartie who is just weeks away from his parole for armed robbery.

Richard, a blond wisp of a youth with a tiny, delicate face to match, had talked earlier about street muggins and how he knocks his victims down and runs when they can't get up.

"I feel sorry for you all, man," he says. "I'm glad it's not me."

That, inmate Walter Allen responds somberly, "is a good way to feel."

The juvenile offenders who leave James River are usually sobered by their visit, but the kids who walk out of the penitentiary after an Insiders session are often shaking.

"They come in here tough, and they go out in tears," brags Alexander (Head) Akers, a long-haired Alexandria inmate who once rode with the notorious Pagans motorcyle gang and is now serving a life sentence for murder. n

Spewing obscenities and pacing ominously back and forth, the inmates take turns trying to terrorize their captive audience. Intimidation is the theme of these two-hour Insider sessions, including the one held recently for 12 youths from Norfolk.

"We s---- together and shower together and sleep together," Meadows roars at the group. "I might as well be in a graveyard, dead and planted somewhere, for all the good I am to my family."

Ordered to take off their shoes and peel off their shirts, the youths are forced to stand while the inmates make repeated sexual threats and leer at the perspiring bodies.

"We're the real . . . convicts, not that tv b--- s---, not the movie b----s," he boasts.

As the session finally ends, the teen-agers are handed cards and told to call any of the Insiders should they feel tempted to commit a crime. Many do call for counseling, and one youth actually phoned to be talked out of robbing a bank.

The Insiders admit that some of what they say is exaggerated slightly but maintain it is necessary to shatter whatever hero image kids might have about prison.

"All it takes to be a convict is to fail at everything else in life," says inmate Aker.Echoing sentiments also expressed by the gentler CIG folks, he says he doesn't "look for anything good from this for me. But if I can turn one kid around so he don't have to go through what I go through, I'll be satisfied."