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.

Larry Cromartie, whose rap sheet once was as bleak as the drab prison grounds he called home for six years, is getting out.

By the time this article is published the lanky, soft-spoken Cromartie, 27, will have walked through the big gate at Virginia's State Farm into a life very different from the one he knew the day he left his fingerprints on the counter of a store he was robbing.

"I'm at the point where I want to start a new slate -- a new I.D. -- for the person I've grown to be," said Cromartie, of Norfolk, just three days before his parole.

"I have all types of interests now," he said enthusiastically. "I've been in trouble a good part of my life, but anybody who chooses to think of me as I was -- well, I'm excited about changing their position and proving them wrong."

As he does with the kids he now counsels against delinquency, Cromartie talked openly about the crimes that repeatedly put him behind bars. In telling his story, he described a young man on the skids.

"I was kicked out of school at 16 for insubordination," he said, recalling what he termed his "first major infraction in the system: I slung a chair across the room in class." The oldest of four children and a "real upset" to his parents, he was skipping classes and also had made a girlfriend pregnant.

He wound up in reform school for accepting money he knew came from forged checks. He says he tried to return to school later -- he was considered a bright student -- but abandoned his education for hustling in the streets.

"I wanted a whole lot of things, and I got into drugs," Cromartie recalled.

Heroin?

"Where I come from, 'drugs' means heroin."

Already no stranger to shoplifting, pool halls or gambling, he began "sneaking stuff" out of offices to support his addiction.

"I could never get into mugging or armed robbery," Cromartie said, shaking his head. But he did start breaking into stores. Before long he had drawn prison sentences -- eight months for breaking and entering, five years for possession of heroin -- and two years on probation for three burglaries.

He spent three years in a road camp, then made parole. But improving the state's roads didn't improve him, he said, and in prison, "there were no programs or counseling -- just go out and work."

Of his parole officer, Cromartie said, "He gave me all the rope I needed to hang myself. He gave me guidelines, but he didn't make sure I followed them."

Nine months later he was back in prison on a 16-year sentence for armed robbery. He remembers clearly the faces of the two elderly shopkeepers.

"They weren't hurt, but they were frightened," he recalls. "I was as scared as they were" His crowd had finally persuaded him to hold up a store, but what he calls his "first and final attempt" at robbery was bungled: "I left my fingerprints on a counter that had been wiped clean that morning. I was arrested the same day."

During his first prison term, Cromartie said, he "wasn't ready for help. And I was meeting people with the same attitude. They felt they had gotten caught, and were trying to figure out how to do it better next time."

This time around, he said, "I began to look at myself." Just before his second arrest, he had met the woman he calls the first positive influence in his life. She was finishing high school and going to college, and Cromartie decided to follow her example.

He finished high school while at Powhattan, completed a bricklaying course there and began taking college courses at night from teachers who come in from J. Sargent Reynolds College.

A federal program paid for his education at first, but when he later was required to pay a third of the cost himself, he dropped out: "I couldn't afford to pay even one-third, not on the institutional wages (50 cents per day) I was making then as a brick mason."

And there were other difficulties.

"The time in prison was hell, because I had to learn all the tricks of the trade to survive -- particularly at Powhattan," Cromartie remembers. "Also, because my juvenile record was so terrible, they had me down (in inmate classification) as violent."

There were sexual approaches to fend off, too.

Cromartie said he learned "there's a certain way to react. You either hit him or do what he wants but the important thing is to react."

Cromartie joined the Community Involvement Group (CIG) after he was transferred to the James River Correction Center. The select, inmate-run program conceived by prisoners six years ago has been the only worthwhile prison experience for most of the 45 inmates affiliated with it.

The self-help group holds regular counseling sessions for teen-agers who are headed for trouble. Cromartie was its president at the time of his parole.

"I learned a whole lot of things from a whole lot of group members, and it helped me get as far as I am now," he said.

Paroled on his "second time up," Cromartie said he hopes to get a job in Norfolk or Richmond with an inmate-aid group that wants to open a CIG program "on the outside." He said he also wants to go to business school.

Since so many friends from his old neighborhood now are in prison, Cromartie is realistic about the adjustment problems ahead of him.

"I've been incarcerated almost six years, and on the morning I'm released they take me across the river and give me $25, and that will be that," he said. "The cold-blodded reality is, I'll have to get out there and deal with my personal situation first."

"If a person can't get a strong sense of himself, the reality of him staying out there is slim," Cromartie added. "So, to a point, I'm almost glad I came here. Taking from this and robbing from that was a way of support I had accepted. Prisons gave me a chance to choose some options."