The attractive, personable young woman suffered from a severe character disorder, according to a psychologist. Her dependent personality made her easy prey for pimps who led her into prostitution. When picked up by police, she frequently had been beaten or starved.

She was addicted to several types of illicit drugs. In jail, she attempted suicide many times and often was "used" by lesbian inmates. Now, in her late 20s, still in and out of jail for petty offenses, she looks twice her age, according to the psychologist, Jo Ann K. Thacker.

Another prisoner was called the Rainbow Demon. He covered his body with tattooed images of icons, believed in witchcraft and claimed he consorted with the devil. He was not a character out of "Helter Skelter," but another inmate in the Montgomery County jail.

At any given time, 10 percent of the roughly 380 inmates at the Montgomery County Detention Center are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded, a situation that frequently plays havoc with the corrections system.

"Adequate treatment resources are not available to meet the crisis situations presented by this type of individual," said a recently released annual report by the county's Department of Corrections. "Incarceration of the mentally ill or retarded in a correctional facility is inappropriate, inhumane and ineffective. These individuals often fall prey to other inmates."

What Montgomery and Prince George's corrections officials see as an increase in the number of such inmates merely exacerbates a situation that is endemic to all suburban Washington jails: persistent overcrowding, which a Montgomery jail administrator says has brought his facility near the "systems breakdown" stage.

"The building of jail bed space simply has not kept up with the growth in law enforcement capabilities, population growth and judicial system growth," said Jim O'Neill, spokesman for the Prince George's County jail. Although it is designed for 300 inmates, the jail now holds more than 500 prisoners.

The Fairfax County jail was built to handle 198, according to Chief Deputy Carl Ray Peed, but in October the facility's population averaged 383 inmates, forcing some inmates to sleep on floors and in makeshift bunks.

In Arlington County's 120-inmate-capacity jail, there have been as many as 211 prisoners this year, prompting jail administrators to house some inmates in day rooms and areas normally reserved for recreation.

In Montgomery County, according to Gary Blake, director of the department of corrections, "we're probably more crowded now than we have ever been." Montgomery's jail, designed for a maximum of 272 inmates, has 381.

Reasons for the overcrowding are many and varied and differ by state, but the results are always the same: heightened tensions within the jails, more assaults and suicide attempts, increased injury and sick leave requests by guards, cutbacks in rehabilitative programs because of shortages of space and personnel and heightened abuse of "vulnerable" inmates like the psychologically disturbed and mentally retarded.

Beyond an increase in crime and more arrests by police, Virginia corrections officials blame state prisons, which are so overcrowded that many inmates wind up serving their time in local jails.

There is no backlog of inmates awaiting transfer to state prisons in suburban Maryland, but, O'Neill said, the number of sentencings for local offenses "has quadrupled in the last two years." Maryland's recent crackdown on drunk driving also is part of the increase, sharply raising the number of 10- to 20-day sentences for drunk driving, he said.

"It's a product of the times," says Montgomery Detention Center Director Sam Saxton. "The tougher the economic situation and the more difficult it is to find work, the more desperate people get. There are more people getting involved in crime. There is a general feeling of hopelessness around."

That general feeling of hopelessness has affected the type of person now spending time in the Washington area jails. Although the female inmates still make up a relatively minor percentage of the prisoners at the local jails, their numbers have increased dramatically.

In 1973, the average number of women prisoners locked up in the Montgomery jail was three, said Blake. There now are 26 and the jail was not designed for that many women inmates. "We used to have empty cells where we could put problem people," said corrections Cpl. Rentha Butler. "But lately we've filled them all up." In Prince George's, O'Neill said, the female inmate population has tripled since 1978.

Most disturbing, perhaps, is what is perceived by some to be an increase in mentally ill or retarded and emotionally impaired inmates. In Fairfax, they make up 12 percent of the inmate population in a jail in which there are an average of 50 suicide attempts a year, Peed said.

Arlington Sheriff Gondles and O'Neill said there are more of these inmates in their jails, and O'Neill, Blake and Saxton blame part of the situation on the deinstitutionalization of former mental patients in Maryland, who later get in trouble and wind up in jail.

"These are the people who fall through the cracks," O'Neill said. "Is a jail a correct place to treat these people? I don't think so."

In many respects, the Montgomery County jail represents most of the problems jail administrators face in dealing with emotionally disturbed and mentally ill or retarded inmates.

Its floor plan is based on wings, in which only three corrections officers have charge of 124 inmates. The wing nicknamed "Viking Country," for example, houses more violent prisoners. Another, called "Bluebloods," houses inmates who take educational courses..

"Some of these mentally ill or retarded inmates are very easily taken advantage of. Others are just the opposite and tend to be very aggressive," said Blake. "Society doesn't know what to do with these people," Saxton said.

Some, like the Rainbow Demon, who was arrested for breaking into vacant homes to live, are arrested for minor crimes. Others are brought in for more serious crimes, such as sex offenses and assaults.

"They have to be almost homicidal or suicidal before we can get them committed to mental institutions," Blake said. "Then when that institution decides he's all right, they send them right back to us." Problems arise because jail guards are not trained for and don't want to handle such inmates and because of the overcrowding, they have to be placed with other inmates and not in special cells.

"This place is not designed for mentally ill inmates. They are very easily victimized," said jail psychologist Thacker. "And the overcrowding makes it much less possible to provide mental health services."

Thacker says these inmates run the gamut of psychological problems, from psychosis to more acute disorders. Some are people who become very violent after consuming alcohol. Others found themselves in a kind of limbo.

One such inmate was mildly retarded with an IQ of 60 (an IQ of 125 is considered in the "bright" range). His parents didn't want him and no group home would take him because of his record of petty thievery, Thacker said.

Another, a 26-year-old male who was a serious sex offender, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, yet he was ruled competent to stand trial and judged too violent for local psychiatric treatment programs, Thacker said.

Most jail officials agree that the problems created by mentally disturbed inmates can be alleviated when overcrowding is less of a problem. Both Fairfax and Arlington recently passed bond referendums allowing expansion or construction of new correctional facilities. Prince George's will have a similar bond referendum next year.

But Thacker sees no relief in sight in Montgomery. "I only have a part-time assistant who is a psychological technician and her job is being eliminated at the end of this fiscal year because of budget cuts," she said.