One of the key issues facing the 1980 General Assembly, which opens this week, will be the direction the Virginia Prison system takes. In the following articles, staff writer Karlyn Barker takes a look at two of the nearly 10,000 people inside the state prisons.

After 11 years in prison, with an exemplary record for all that time, Ike Harding was hoping for some encouragement from the parole board.

What he recieved he says, was blant rejection.

"They said that due to my prior record (for robbery) they felt it was inappropriate for me to be released," said Harding, now 41. "Now, that's just about as cold as you cant get."

It hurt -- "hurt real bad" -- especially when he had to tell his wife and four kids in Norfolk.

Although he admits he's a three-time loser -- he began his path to prison at age 6 when he stole a teacher's watch -- Harding had reason to hope.

"I've had a superior record during 11 years of incarceration I had people willing to give me jobs," he said. A lot of positive things had happened to me, but it was all disregarded because of my past record."

Harding -- his small, sad face almost a diary of his troubled past -- nevertheless is composed rather than bitter.

"There's so many mistakes this board has made in letting people out and not letting them out," he said. But I can take the blow, and I know I'm responsible for everything that's transpired."

What first transpired, when he was 15 or so, was his dropping out of school. Not long afterward, he recalls, he landed in reform school for stealing a crate of eggs from a recreation center that was preparing for an Easter egg hunt.

Conviction for petty larceny followed that, "and the court gave me a choice: prison, or float out of Norfolk with the Navy." He took the Navy.

"I've been small all my life, and I had this complex about it -- like I had to prove myself. I just barely passed the Navy's weight limit, and that's the only thing that saved me from going to the penitentiary at an earlier age."

He stuck it out in the Navy three years, but in 1956 received an "undesirable" discharge for insubordination. He blames racial tensions and the fact that he had no respect for authority.

Recalling his life on his own at age 20, Harding says, "All hell broke loose. I was in the penitentiary by '57, for grand larceny."

Although placed on probation at first, that was revoked when he was convicted of breaking and entering. Soon after his release three years later, he committed a robbery.

"I had a low-paying job, a small baby and an apartment full of roaches," he recalls. "I panicked and went out to get me some money."

Although he had found prison "horrible" and didn't want to go back, Harding said, "after a while, it was also fascinating. I had people telling me I had to take a chance to be successful -- that it was easy -- and that all I had to have was the nerve to take something from someone."

He also found, he thought then, that he was picking up many useful skills while in prison.

"I learned what a man could do with a deck of cards," Harding said. "An older guy next to me taught me how to cheat, and I used to take a mirror and practice at the road camp. There was nothing else to do."

There were inmates who knew about cards and picking pockets, he said, and "after a while, I started listening to the other guys. Then I got out and found that a lot of what they told me worked. I could pick a lock and talk fast to the young ladies."

After serving five years for the robbery, Harding made parole and stayed out of prison about three years, until he loaned his car to a friend.

"He used it for a robbery, but I didn't know about it then," he insists. "But they were trying to send me back to the pen." Harding was furious. He made bond and was awaiting trial when he robbed a bank.

"I flipped," he explains now."I was angry they were trying to make me an accomplice, and I figured I'd need money for my defense. But I guess you could say I was criminal-minded by then."

Harding drew 15 years for the bank robbery, 25 years as an accomplice in the crime involving his car, and three more years as a penalty for being a repeat offender.

Given his good-behavior record in prison, Harding has worked his way through the system and is now at the James River Correctional Center at the State Farm. It is a medium-security facility for inmates who are within a few years or months of release.

Harding says therapy has been the turning point for him particularly his sessions with counselor George Mahaffey. Through Mahaffey's help and the inmate-run Communty Involvement Group, Harding says, he has found himself.

"I've got goals now, I've got a mission, he says. He told the parole board that he hopes to remain involved with corrections -- from the outside -- by counseling youths.

"I just wanted to be on the other side for a change," he said. "If I can do as well as I've done wrong, I'll be successful." Just now, though, he says prison "feels like a state of suspended animation."

He remains embarrassed about his' past crimes.

"If I could just grab every one of my past victims and tell them how sorry I am, I would," he promises. "All I can say is that I thought I was a victim, too."