Back in 1973, I was one of a group of reporters subpoenaed by Spiro T. Agnew in an attempt to prove that the Justice Department was leaking evidence against him to the press. Three things seemed guaranteed. The first was that I would be asked who my sources were, the second was that I would not answer and the third -- given the antipathy the judge had already shown to the press -- was that I would be jailed. A prosecutor added a fourth: I might be raped.

Suddenly, what started as a joke threatened to turn into a nightmare. My journalistic fantasies of a night in jail (before I was sprung on appeal) and the story that would result, turned into sheer terror. In the end, Agnew pleaded no contest on the very day I was supposed to appear in court and my case became moot. Later, though, when it was reported that one reason John Dean cooperated with the authorities was that he was afraid of being raped in jail, I was not one of those who laughed.

Now we find out through a series in The Washington Post that these fears were hardly irrational. The reporter, Loretta Tofani, tells us that "violent gang rapes and sexual assaults" occur in the Prince George's County jail about a dozen times a week. The victims of these crimes are usually not convicted criminals, but men being held for trial, sometimes because they are unable to post bail. In many cases, they are found innocent and later freed -- but not before they were brutalized for the "crime" of not having bail money.

Of course, it doesn't matter at all if they are innocent or guilty. No judge would sentence a person to be raped or forced to perform oral sex. But because of a jail designed by an idiot so that the guards cannot see into the cells and because of jail officials who, when it comes to seeing and hearing no evil, make the legendary three monkeys alarmists by comparison, this is often the case.

The Post managed to get corroboration of these rapes from both the victims and those who assaulted them. Yet the director of the facility, Arnett Gaston, maintains both that these rapes did not happen and that those that did are few and far between. If he were on the District's election board, he would have blamed it all on the computer.

It's easy to take a shot at Gaston and his attitude makes it a moral obligation to do so, but he is really nothing more than the fall guy for a county and a society that have turned in frustration over crime to simply locking up more and more people. Politicians -- and Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan is a prime example -- love to tell the public that something is accomplished by this. What is accomplished is that the nation's prison population is growing rapidly -- about 400,000 people now -- but there has been no diminution in crime.

It would be one thing if the politicians who yelled for more and longer jail sentences also committed themselves to doing something about conditions in the jails, but by and large they do not. So at the moment, the nation is stuffing more and more people into more and more crowded facilities. In 30 states, prisons are under court order to end "cruel and inhuman conditions" -- so cruel and so inhuman that in California, maybe our most progressive state, last year seven prisoners were killed at San Quentin alone.

Some things are basic. When the state takes a person's freedom, it ought to at the very least be able to guarantee his safety. This is true for the innocent and the guilty as well. To put someone in a jail where violence is commonplace, where the state either by policy or apathy shows that it, too, has a low regard for human dignity and human life, serves as confirmation to the violent that they are on the right track. This may be why some of the rapists confessed to The Post. It is as if they admitted to nothing more than what was expected of them.

If the past is, as they say, prologue, then almost nothing will come out of The Post's series on the Prince George's County jail. But possibly the voters will become cynical about politicians who yell and scream about the innocent victims of crime on the streets, but don't do anything about the victims under their own care. A little education would change matters. Politicians spend time on the streets. Maybe they ought to spend time in the jails.

After you, Gaston.