The American Civil Liberties Union sued Virginia prison officials today, claiming that conditions at the state's new maximum security prison in Mecklenburg County are "beneath standards of human dignity."

The suit named 17 guards the ACLU contends "used excessive and unnecessary force" and alleged the guards are "to a significant degree responsible for the general atmosphere of violence" that the group alleged prevails at the five-year prison, the newest facility and most expensive in the state system.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court here, charged that many prisoners are confined 24 hours a day in 6-by-9-foot windowless cells, and in some cases are allowed out only three times a week for five-minute showers. It said others are allowed out of their cells only for the showers and three hours of weekly recreation.

The suit also contends the prison lacks adequate medical and psychiatric care, adequately trained staff and rehabilitative programs for its 314 inmates. The prison, according to the suit, "inflicts needless suffering on prisoners and creates an environment which threatens prisoners' mental and physical well being and results in the unnecessary deterioration of prisoners confined there."

State officials today had no comment on the suit, which seeks a permanent injunction requiring officials to correct conditions at the prison by providing more recreational, vocational and other programs and better trained staff.

Alvin J. Bronstein, executive director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, which brought the suit, said the nonprofit group reopened a review of Mecklenburg after receiving more than 100 complaints about guard violence from prisoners over the past year.

Mecklenburg is the state facility for recalcitrant prisoners, sent there for disruptive conduct at other institutions. It also houses Virginia's Death Row, which currently has 16 inmates.