The 16 inmates filed into the Lorton Reformatory chapel yesterday wearing caps and gowns and huge smiles on their faces. In the audience were relatives and friends who were so proud you would have thought these beaming young men were about to graduate to freedom.

Some said they had, in a way, but actually they were only graduating from college.

"Like late at night, when you really get into the books, you can feel your mind expand," said Nassar Abdul-Haqq (aka Henry Carter Jr.), 33, who received a bachelor's degree in urban studies. "It gives you more space to work with, like a kind of inner freedom."

With freshly laundered work shirts and prison jeans poking out from under their black robes, the inmates marched to an organist's rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance," traditional college graduation music for a not-so-traditional occurrence at a prison.

It was the fourth annual graduation day at Lorton, sponsored by the D.C. Corrections Department in conjunction with the University of the District of Columbia. The commencement speaker was Jim Vance, popular nes anchorman with WRC-TV (Channel 4), who praised the graduates for "taking responsibility" for their lives.

"You're not blaming your lot in life on your mother or father, white folk or a bad environment that so many of us choose to use as a copout," Vance said. "I hate this place," he added to some mumbled amens in the audience. "I do not like to come here. This place has bad vibes. . . , but I am humbled in your presence."

Lisle Carter, president UDC called the graduates, "Pioneers of a special sort."

Achieving a college degree at Lorton is no easy task, which is why so few do. But of the 50 or so who have received diplomas and subsequently been released, only two have returned.

"If a man can complete four years of college under the circumstances here, he can make it on the outside," said Robert Crowe, a bachelor's degree candidate who gave Graduation Day remarks on behalf of the inmates. "[United States Chief Justice Warren] Burger has stated over and over that society has a moral responsibility to rehabilitate a man once he has been incarcerated. We support Burger 100 percent."

Lorton offers four areas of college study: urban studies, media technology, leisure studies and business management. The most popular course is urban studies, which focuses on city life and local politics. An experimental course in paralegal studies drew an overwhelming response from the inmates but was cut out after only one session because of budget reductions, officials said.

Most inmates at Lorton do not have high school diplomas when they arrive, and the road to a college degree is long and hard. With a dormitory setting that, at best, resembles a day camp for wayward boys, completion of assigned work goes to the inmate who has the most perseverance.

"I usually have to go to bed early so I can wake up at, say 2 a.m., and study for an hour," recalled Abdul-Haqq, who spent four years earning his degree. "It's quiet then and I can focus better. The hard part is getting to sleep at 7 p.m."

Before he was transferred into what is known at Lorton as an "honor's dorm," where the more serious minded students are housed, Abdul-Haqq spent two years jammed in a general population dorm where up to 70 inmates sleeping on cots a mere six inches apart played radios and cards.

"Guys who don't have a positive way to deal with the time end up spending time the worst possible way -- idly," he said. "Then time begins to work on you. It starts to weigh heavily on your mind because that's all you think about. But if you are very busy, really engaged, then you lose track of time."

Born in Ashland, Va, Abdul-Haqq moved to Washington at age 10 in 1957. He attended Richardson Elementary School in Northeast Washington and Kelly Miller Junior High. He made it to the 10th grade at the Chamberland Vocational School before dropping out. A few years later, he joined the Army, but was dishonorably discharged after becoming involved with drugs during a tour of duty in Vietnam.

"I didn't feel that I needed to complete school at the time," Abdul-Haqq said. "I thought I could make it without a diploma. I was into money . . . . Now I'm in for five to 15."

"I'm just so proud of him." said Henry Carter Sr., his father, with tears in his eyes. "Some of these guys have done so well I think they should be sent home to live with their families."