The letters come across my desk in a steady stream. They are from people who live in cages. The correspondence is a river of human despair; individual desperation made worse by the crowded conditions under many prisoners live. Reading this mail is disquieting, because I know our present corrections system is a failure.

Only last month, a study for the National Institute of Justice concluded that the number of people in America's crowded prisons should begin to be drastically reduced and ways found to release their populations rather build new facilities, while keeping the safety of the public paramount.

So it was a bright sign for me to see trial lawyers from 30 states meeting here over the weekend to discuss "creative" alternatives to prison.

Now, to say that prisons are a failure is not to deny that prison is sometimes a necessary punishment when it comes to violent crime. It is. With crime on the rise, people are looking for ways to combat it. And that is why looking for alternatives to prison is so important. The fact is, prisons all too often don't change behavior, but simply alienate the prisoner from the rest of us and make him better trained at his antisocial tasks; prison is a training school for crime. That is one reason the rate of recidivism is so high.

The knowledge that prisons are Band-Aids can propel us to do something, or just to throw our collective hands in the air. Meanwhile, prisons are very costly institutions, as the people of Prince George's County found out recently when the county council learned that the $5.5 million it has to build a new jail falls short of the cost -- by an additional $18.5 million.

The new and urgent concern many of us have with violent crime is misguided if we expect the criminal justice system to eliminate that crime. In fact, our system encourages antisocial behavior, says Charles Silberman in his book, "Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice." And the average defendent sees the courts as alien uncaring.

This weekend, lawyers came together to talk of proposing something more constructive than prison for the majority of prisoners who are not violent, the approximately 70 percent who are incarcerated because we don't know what else to do with them.

Louis F. Linden, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that "defense attorneys should become actively involved. . . . At the root of what we are discussing here today is the concept of creating social change. The problem of what to do with persons convicted of crime does not exist in a vacuum. Our clients spend their whole lives getting to where they are now."

Judge Joseph Tauro, of the U.S. District Court in Boston, said: "What the lawyer should be trying to do is focus the judge's attention on this particular defendant, that this defendant is salvageable and it would be in the best interest of that defendant to be given an opportunity to redeem himself by a volunteer program of public service, rather than make mailbags in Atlanta."

One alternative to prison could help us address the poverty and racism connected with violent crime by putting an individual to work in organizations that help his community and himself, raising his estimate of himself and repairing the damage that existed between him and his community in the first place.

Linden told the lawyers that alternative sentences also could help in the alienation of lawyers from their communities, one of the reasons for the high rate of divorce, alcoholism and ulcers among them.

"Participating in [social change] allows us to reestablilsh our connection with the society in which we live," he said.

Present at the workshop were representatives from the office of the Chief Justice of the United States, the White House, the corrections field, the academic field and numerous judges.

One of the chief movers and shakers behind this idea is a bearded lawyer named Ira M. Lowe. He was elated when, at the meeting's end, the lawyers passed resolutions that -- for the first time -- spelled out their duty to explain and discuss with their clients the possibility of an alternative to incarceration. The resolution also said that failure to comply constituted "neglect and ineffective assistance of counsel."

To Lowe, all this is a sign that social change finally may be in the making.

"Lawyers are like artists," he said. "They are very creative when they put their minds to it."

This weekend, they did.