It's a six-hour drive from Washington to the women's Federal Correction Institution in Alderson, W.Va. -- a town so remote trains stop for passengers only once every 24 hours, at 2 a.m. For 36-year-old Bettye Pitts, who's been there since 1975 for stealing $300 worth of clothes from Hechts, it might as well be Jupiter.

But she is separated from her four children, whom she hasn't seen since last November, by more than just the roughly 300 miles between here and Alderson. As she sees it, they are kept apart by a system which sends women -- convicted and sentenced to prison for violations of D.C. criminal laws -- to a federal prison in West Virginia while men serve their sentences just across the Virginia boarder from the District in nearby Lorton.

Bettye Pitts is one of 90 women from D.C. at Alderson; they comprise almost a quarter of the prison population. They are there because the District has no place to house its long-term female offenders. Anothr 60 District women are in the federal prison in Lexington, Ky. Like the general female prison population, these women are mostly young, black, uneducated and poor.

Bettye Pitts has had it with the scheme of things. She is suing Mayor Marion Barry and U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti in U.S. District Court because, she claims, incarceration at Alderson violates her constitutional right of equal protection. In this case, that protection meaning being imprisoned at home and the privileges that would provide.

"When I first got her I couldn't believe that so many D.C. women could be here and that it was okay," she said in a recent interview. "The District has no right to give men Lorton and send all the women to a federal institution. No one wants to accept accountability for D.C. women. We're just shoved into the background, and that's what it's really about."

In her suit, which was filed before the U.S. District Court here last year, Pitts claims that compared to men at Lorton, the women at Alderson are shortchanged when it comes to getting parole, learning job skills and receiving visits from family and friends.

For people who spend five to 10 years of their lives in prison, visits represent one of the few ways of maintaining contact with the outside world. They are particularly important for the 70 percent of Alderson inmates who have small children.

"We can't give our children the emotional and spiritual support they need," Pitts said, "and we most certainly can't help them financially when we are so far away."

In five years at Alderson, Pitts estimates, she had had 10 visits. She considers herself lucky. Some women have none.

"I call it the Valley of Forgotten Women," offered one woman, the mother of six, who had received no visits during her six years' imprisonment.

An estimated 10 percent, probably less, of the women receive visits in a year. By contrast, D.C. Department of Corrections officials estimate one-third of the D.C. jail and Lorton inmates receive visits each day.

The rural town of Alderson, population 1,362, is made even more remote by a lack of accomodations for guests. The sole place for visitors to say is an 18-bed house run on donations by Dick Dieter and Maggie Louden, a couple who moved from D.C. several years ago specifically to start the Alderson Hospitality House. Buses stop in a town 30 miles shy of Alderson.

A van, owned and operated by the Annandale Christian Community Association, makes the run from Washington to Alderson twice a month, costing $10 per ride. The van and the Hospitality House make an occasional trip to Alderson possible for the families of the D.C. women who are almost uniformly poor.

Pitts feels that if she were housed near Washington as men are, not only would she have more visits, but she would have better job training and opportunities as well. She works as a key punch operator in the prison's data processing plant for 80 cents an hour.

Most of the women work in the garment factory for about 60 cents an hour. The rest work on maintenance crews, with a few involved in apprenticeship programs in plumbing and electrical wiring.

Educational programs are limited to Adult Basic Education and high school equivalency preparation. For Pitts, who got her GED at Alderson several years ago and now would like to study social work, the prison offers little.

In contrast, 96 men leave Lorton very day to participate in a community work-release program. "They earn competitive salaries and come out of prison with a skill and a good working record. Another 183 inmates are enrolled in the University of the District of Columbia's Lorton extension, studying for degrees in urban studies, management, media technology, business and computer programming. The prison itself trains men in printing, culinary arts, auto mechanics, carpentry, mapmaking and furniture repair.

Alderson has five women, all within a year of the end of their sentences, on work release in a nearby town, with "no plans" for expansion of the program. The area simply does not support the kind of economy necessary to make work release viable, warden Kenneth Neagle explained. The main industry of the town is the prison, which employs 250 workers. "If the prison were to close, the town would have to close up as well," one guard said.

Another kind of distance separates Pitts from home -- cultural differences.

To the women at Alderson, mostly black women from urban areas, small-town, white West Virginia with its skunks and racoons is a foreign culture. "Hicks" is the word one inmate used to describe the residents of Alderson, where rumor has it that escapees be returned to the prison for $50 and a ham. Caught somewhere in the mire between two jurisdictions, Bettye Pitts says she is a priority of neither the federal nor the D.C. parole systems and a burden to both. If she were a man and within the D.C. parole board's jurisdiction, she believes, she would be paroled by now. As it is under federal jurisdiction, Pitts must wait for parole until 1982, when she has served a full third of her 21-year term.

One Lorton inmate, for example, was paroled after serving only 2 1/2 years of his 20-year sentence for killing his girlfriend, D.C. prison officials report.

"Female D.C. code violators are at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to males at Lorton, specifically with respect to parole," said Pitts' lawyer, Jeff Ayres. "The D.C. parole board is more lenient and its officials have admitted as much before Congress."

Once a woman is assigned to Alderson, she becomes by law a federal prisoner, federal parole board researcher Peter Hoffman explained. This poses a "problem for people, such as the D.C. women in Alderson, who are in the system for violation of what is essentially a state law."

While D.C. Department of Corrections officials say it is not possible for the D.C. parole board to hear women at Alderson, there is an agreement that a woman within nine months of parole eligibility can be "referred for transfer" back to D.C.

Even then, corrections officials explain, acceptance is not guaranteed. The offender must be informed enough to request the transfer, the prison record must be good, and space must be available in the D.C. jail. "If the jail is crowded, these women won't be able to come back," said Karen Amy, a woman offender specialists.

The inmates themselves complain of conflicting information and advice on parole fromy their caseworkers and a lawyer.

"Sometime if a women has as many years as I do, the District says you cannot come back until you meet the federal parole board. I know that's illegal. They know that's illegal," Pitts said. "But they hang you up in red tape. Your caseworker can send your papers to D.C. and they'll send them back and it's a constant back and forth."

Caseworker Tom Harvey, who advises the D.C. women in his unit on parole strategies, described the D.C. parole board as a "mess."

"It's unfortunate how the system works, he says, because the women sometimes have to do more time than they would in another state. It should be possible for the D.C. parole board to come here to review the cases, but I'm sure it would never happen. I assume they have too much work to pay attention to it," he said.

Pitts is not the first woman to challenge the system. In 1976, the same year Pitts entered Alderson, inmate Mary Williams won a case granting her the right to go before the District rather than federal parole board. Earlier that year Lana Garnes won a case to encourage greater use of halfway houses in the absence of a facility for D.C. women.

Even D.C. Department of Corrections Director Delbert Jackson is sympathetic to the problem. "The lack of a women's correctional facility in the District excludes equal protection to the female offender," he testified at a congressional hearing. "They are unable to participate in department activities such as our work training and educational furlough programs and receive regular and necessary visits from their families and friends . . ."

He added: "Fairness and the principle of equal protection under the law dictate that the District should provide programs and facilities for females comparable to those it provides for men."

However, lawyers, for District and federal corrections agencies argue that there is no sex discrimination involved because the U.S. attorney general has the legal power to designate in which prisons D.C. violations will serve their sentences. If he designates Alderson, W.Va., for women and Lorton, Va., for men, he is fully within the law.

The lack of prison space for District women is "not a violation of their constitutional rights," said Andrea Harnett. "D.C. is unique. District violators are federal prisoners." And that, she says, "is the law." d

"Nobody's questioning the attorney general's authority," said Charles Barnett, a former Department of Corrections official who now works with the Lutheran Social Service group in Washington, and who recently received a grant to further the women's cause. "The question is, is he exercising that authority in an arbitrary and unconstitutional manner? And is D.C. really accepting the responsbility that these women are its citizens?"

Pitts summed it up simply: "My beef is with the District. I feel if we belong to them, they should have facilities to house us."

Barrett, a former official of the Women's Detention Center at 1010 N. Capitol Street, now a halfway house for men, says he left the department frustrated. He says he saw the women "slowly squeezed out of the city."

Until the early '60s there was a women's facility at Lorton, but over the decade first the building at Lorton and then the Women's Detention Center was converted to housing for men. The federal system, particularly Alderson, became the primary repository for D.C. women, Barrette explained. a

While D.C. Department of Corrections officials may privately admit the situation is unfair, there are no plans for a women's prison in the District.

"I'm a strong advocate of it (a women's prison), but it's logistically impossible," said Delbert Jackson. A new prison would require at least 40 acres and money the District does not have. In the meantime he advocates "establishing a time frame to address the needs of women."

The city did target $13 million of a $65 million congressional appropriation to build a women's facility at Lorton under the Lorton Improvement Plans in 1973, but the City Council never acted on the appropriation and the money was returned by congressional request last year.

Department of Corrections officials point to the City Council, accusing it of foot-dragging and "bureaucratic inertia." The City Council in turn blames the Department of Corrections.

"It seemed always to be a project on the horizon," recalled Lynn Schultz, a staff member on council's judiciary committee. "It went on and on."

Insiders say the issue was left hanging because of disagreement within the City Council on whether the women should be in halfway houses in the District or a proposed facility at Lorton.

"The whole issue got bogged down and Congress asked for the money back," said William Golightly, assistant administrator in the Department of Corrections.

Council member Willie Hardy, who chaired the judiciary committee when the women's prison was being considered, says she does not remember the details.

"I just don't remember," she said this week. "I'm really not clear on what happened, but I know there was a change of plan.

In the meantime, 90 D.C. women sit in Alderson, W.Va.

"I think it's just lack of concern," said Pitts.

Who specifically was responsible for converting the cash into construction?

Delbert Jackson says he is in the process of drawing up a new Lorton improvement plan, which may include another request for funds for a women's prison.

The problem, according to Charles Barrett, is that women are not a priority. And power in the city is so diffused that there is no one person or office responsible for initiating a move to get D.C. women back in town. But most people agree an order from the courts would be a start.

Or it might not be.

"I'm in favor of building a facility in the District for women," says Councilman David Clarke, current chairman of the judiciary committee, "but no in the near future because of budgetary reasons."