When the Mecklenburg Correctional Center was built here in 1977 for Virginia's most intransigent convicts, it had a phased program of reward and punishment based on a modern correctional theory that officials called "reality therapy." That, and a one-to-one staff-to-inmate ratio, gave Mecklenburg an image as Virginia's most progressive penal institution and made it, on a per-inmate basis, the state's most expensive.

It has not worked. Or, if it has, Virginia corrections officials are going to have to prove it to a federal judge in a case brought by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which seeks sweeping changes and reforms at the maximum security prison. The ACLU charges that violence at Mecklenburg is "pervasive" and that there is virtually no treatment or rehabilitation.

"Prisoners are simply locked in their cells with virtually nothing to occupy their time," the ACLU suit against Mecklenburg charges. ". . . Numerous inmates have suffered injuries in physical confrontations with guards . . . . The combined effect of the deplorable living conditions, idleness and violence results in the unnecessary debilitation of prisoners."

In a legal response to the suit, the state attorney general's office presented its own bleak picture of life inside the prison: Mecklenburg guards are subjected to unprovoked, violent attacks by inmates; the inmates beat and spit on guards, sometimes throwing food and human waste on them. It asked that the judge enjoin all Mecklenburg inmates from abusing the guards.

Whichever version is more accurate, the problems occur in a prison that costs $19,241 a year for each inmate and has a total staff complement of 346--of which 256 are uniformed guards, or "correctional officers"--for an inmate population of about 320. Virginia spends more and employs more correctional officers per inmate than any other state in the South, a fact that caused consternation among lawmakers during the last session of the legislature.

The controversy over conditions at Mecklenburg comes at a time of growing crisis in America's correctional system. Most prisoners, including those at Mecklenburg, eventually will be back on the streets. Yet experts no longer are sure which rehabilitation programs, if any, actually work. Making matters worse, the money for such programs is dwindling as Americans demand that more criminals be locked up and at the same time vote down bond issues -- as did New York voters recently -- needed to build prisons and implement rehabilitation programs.

Built at a cost of $10 million, Mecklenburg opened on the outskirts of this tiny Southside Virginia town in 1977 as part of a long-range plan to phase out the large state penitentiary in Richmond (which is still open) in favor of smaller, specialized institutions throughout the state. Current thinking in the corrections field favors small institutions, and small units within them, to facilitate the individual treatment of prisoners.

Accordingly, Mecklenburg has five buildings spread out on a rural campus, each with three pods, or cellblocks, that have 24 cells each and a dayroom and classroom --all behind an elaborate system of steel control grids. There is an orientation area, isolation cells and a special cellblock for the state's 18 death row inmates. One building has 70 in protective custody. The bulk of the inmates came from other institutions, where they could not be controlled by normal methods.

It is a world where inmates talk to each other through the vent system, tear out the light fixtures in their cells to make weapons, and kick guards. The plumbing in the small cells is controlled from outside so the inmates cannot flood the prison. A piped-in music system had to be removed because inmates were using its wires in suicide attempts.

In the prison's visiting room last October, two women tried unsuccessfully to smuggle a .38 caliber pistol to two death row inmates. A memo to the guards, tacked to a bulletin board, directs that, "Whenever an inmate is confined within his cell and unable to exit therefrom, gas shall not be used without . . . explicit permission . . . . "

Inmate Edward Leroy Mitchell, a plaintiff in the ACLU suit who is doing 25 years for armed robbery, said violence is rife in the prison. He remembered times when, "If you didn't speak to the officer, or say thank you, that meant you had a negative attitude, you couldn't progress." He said he saw an inmate ask to have the lights dimmed and the guard "opened the door and beat the man up just for asking."

Mitchell said that after he saw one beating he wrote to the ACLU and as a result, prison authorities "wanted to move me to segregation. I said I preferred not to. They came with billy clubs, padded vests, a video camera set, tear gas, shields and handcuffs. They beat me up, threw me down the steps headfirst, put me in a special management cell completely naked, with no personal property, no nothing."

Warden Edward C. Morris acknowledges that there is violence, but attributes it to the type of inmates that Mecklenburg houses.

"You're dealing with people who are filtered out of the system for behavioral problems, so you've got an assortment . . . with a tendency to be aggressive and abusive and predatory," said Morris. " . . . Our mission is not rehabilitation per se, not to prepare inmates to return to society, but to other institutions. Our job is to take prisoners who have a hard time adjusting and work with them so they can go back to other programs."

While the ACLU charges that the prison is engaging in unnecessary punishment, Morris described the program of "reality therapy" as "traditional individual and group counseling. Basically we urge people to set goals and work toward them, and this is reinforced with a progressive housing system."

Reality therapy, widely used in prisons today, represents what corrections specialists call a more common sense and less idealistic approach to rehabilitation than was standard in past decades, when it was thought that crime was a sickness that could be "cured" through psychotherapy. Reality therapy simply means confronting an inmate with his own behavior and its consequences and hoping that he will choose to change.

Morris described it simply as "two adults counselor and convict sitting down and talking . . . . We recognize we can't change people. You can't force changes in values and attitudes. You can force changes in behavior for a short period of time, but as soon as the controls end, the person reverts to what he feels comfortable doing . . . .We can only motivate and encourage and provide the opportunity for change to occur and then it's up to the individual."

According to ACLU lawyer Alvin J. Bronstein, what is needed at Mecklenburg is less esoteric theory and more vocational and educational programs. It is not that Bronstein objects to reality therapy, but that he believes the effort at rehabilitation does not go far enough.

Bronstein objects to the negative elements of the phased housing system that Morris said is used to "reinforce" reality therapy. The way this operates is that when an inmate first arrives at Mecklenburg, he is placed in a "phase one" cellblock, which Morris described as "an extremely restrictive phase in terms of privileges and activities."

"The primary emphasis is preventing the inmate from carrying out bad behavior," the warden said. "Generally, he has no contact with others for about 60 days. The inmate works with his counselor and program team. We limit physical contact to prevent him assaulting or threatening. We get him to make some commitment to the goal of returning to other institutions. "If he gets along fine he goes to phase two. There he has group counseling programs. He can come out of his cell every evening, watch TV, play cards and interact with a group of six other inmates."

Phase two generally lasts four months and, if it works out, the inmate goes to an even freer phase three, in which he is given a job assignment in the prison. The idea in this last phase is to make the environment like that of a normal prison to which the inmate will return. The entire program, if it works as Morris said it does for most inmates, should take from nine months to a year.

To the ACLU's Bronstein, the program is a throwback to "behavior modification" programs popular in corrections institutions in the 1960s but subsequently abandoned for ethical reasons. Based largely on the reward-punishment theories of Harvard scholar B.F. Skinner, "behavior mod," as it was known, had officials administering negative stimuli -- electric shocks, for example-- in an effort to change criminal behavior.

Inmate Michael Irven Cross, a self-proclaimed escape artist doing life plus 27 years for armed robbery, murder and escape, said the prison was much stricter when it first opened.

"This place was really crazy then," Cross said. "When you came out of your cell, you had to take off your clothes and be strip-searched . . . . I wanted another bar of soap. Five officers came, and I was taken to the major. He said, 'My wife and I use one bar of soap in a month.' They were crazy. They handcuffed guys to the fence and busted their heads."

Cross complained that teachers who come to the prison "just don't care . . . . I love math. They won't let me teach others math. They say, 'No, it's a security risk.' "

A ranking correctional officer, Lt. Henry Dunn, a large, jovial man with a silver tie clasp shaped like handcuffs, said the officers "are under a lot of stress and strain, being alert and aware every minute. You have to be, or you get hit . . . . "

Dunn said that the inmates are "guarded and watched and supervised almost individually. Any time they are out of their cells they are guarded and watched and supervised almost individually."

And he added: "I can't see how the inmates can complain about this. They have everything they ask for short of turning them loose. We ICC 'em every time anything happens bring them before the institutional classification committee to see if they need a change . . . . We listen to his version of his problems, where he thinks he can live, and so on."

"Some of the officers are . . . arrogant, much more aggressive toward the inmates than I am," Dunn admitted. "An inmate always wants a long, drawn-out explanation.For example, I'll tell an inmate, 'You'll get your shower as soon as I get time.' Another officer may say, 'You'll get your shower.' I always try to offer just a teeny bit of explanation."

Dunn suggested that a reporter would have to put on a guard uniform to get a true feel for the inmates.

"You wouldn't believe the difference," he said. "Most of them defy the authority of the uniform. A guy hit me in the face." Dunn added that later the inmate said, 'Sergeant Dunn is a fine fellow. He just happened to be the first man with a uniform.' "

Dunn said he differs with a psychiatrist who visits the prison because, "He believes everybody can be helped. I believe, after trying and trying and trying . . . there's nothing to do but keep him locked up because you can't rehabilitate 'em enough to put 'em on the street. Some people are just so far behind mentally that there's just no way you can say he'll ever be able to go back on the street and lead a normal, productive life . . . . These are not your old road-gang-type people. These people are here because they can't get along elsewhere . . . . We've got a lot of people here who are too bad to be here. They're mental cases. They tear up their clothes. They tear up everything. You'll have a man who tears up all his clothes, then complains he hasn't got any."

The guards now are better paid than in the past, and each receives three weeks of basic training. Officer Tommy West said he had been selling auto parts and got into guard work "for the benefits." Dunn left farming and a job as a sewing machine mechanic for the prison job's relatively short hours and the $17,200 salary, even though he was "not that enthused about a prison job or dealing with inmates."

Tom Coleman, a rehabilitation counselor here for years, said that the prison's program is more lenient now than it once was. He gives the orientation sessions for new arrivals, and always tells them: "We're not concerned with why you're here, only with what you do here . . . . The program is very simple: Learn how to get along with people."