Virginia prison officials, accused of creating an atmosphere of repression and violence at the state's most modern maximum security facility, agreed today in federal court to a series of reforms, including a ban on the "excessive use of chemical agents" in restraining prisoners.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Mehrige tentatively approved a settlement negotiated between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, which brought a class-action suit against Mecklenburg Correctional Center in October 1981, alleging that conditions are "beneath the standards of human dignity."

"I congratulate you for working out a matter that would have been costly and time-consuming," said Mehrige, who 15 years ago levied fines against Virginia for conditions at another prison. "The court expects this agreement to be lived up to 100 percent."

Had the case gone to trial, the ACLU was ready to introduce tapes, made by prison guards, of violent episodes at Mecklenburg, showing, they said, scenes of guards spraying tear gas into cells, beating inmates with clubs and restraining them with waist chains anchored to bed posts.

"I am convinced the state settled because it didn't want those tapes shown for two weeks in open court," said Chan Kendrick, director of the Virginia ACLU, who saw a portion of the 35 hours copied by attorneys. "I am sure that had an impact."

Mecklenburg, in rural Southside Virginia near the North Carolina border, was built six years ago as a modern maximum security prison, designed to hold each prisoner in a separate cell with limited access to recreation or educational programs. Among the approximately 300 prisoners housed there are the 18 prisoners on Death Row in Virginia.

Conditions on Death Row--described by lawyers who handle death sentence cases around the country as some of the most restrictive--were among the reasons cited by convicted murderer Frank Coppola last summer when he dropped his appeals on his death sentence. Coppola, executed August 10, hadn't been allowed to visit with his two young sons--except in chains, through a glass screen--in four years.

Alvin Bronstein, executive director of the National Prison Project, said today that the Virginia settlement was a signal to other states with "supermaximum" prisons that "the Constitution will not tolerate locking up people in essentially solitary confinement . . . merely because officials perceive that someone is dangerous."

"They think that solves a problem, but it creates a problem," Bronstein said at a news conference today. "Pretty soon, people are going to act out and then you have confrontation all the time."

The agreement, signed by both sides April 8 after months of negotiations, is still subject to the approval of all the prisoners involved in the class action suit, although some have already agreed to its provisions. State corrections officials said they will not comment on any details until the settlement becomes final.

No monetary awards are involved in the suit although Bronstein said negotiations will continue on the ACLU's cost in bringing the case.

One of the major reforms agreed to by the state involves the abolition of the Special Management Unit, used to house prisoners who break prison rules and, according to the ACLU, the site of "continued and excessive use of force."

The agreement also requires the state to investigate past incidents of violence and to document actions taken against the guards involved. The taping of the incidents, done by the prison to monitor responses in violent situations, will also continue, the agreement said.

Among other changes is a relaxation of strict rules on visiting rights, telephone calls and strip searches of prisoners and visitors. For instance, Death Row inmates will now be able to receive visits from people outside their immediate family and on weekends. But negotiations are continuing on the issue of allowing inmates to visit with their family other than via telephone through a glass screen.

"That is the single greatest frustration for inmates on Death Row," said Charlottesville attorney Lloyd Snook, who represents five prisoners awaiting the death sentence. "All of these things are nice, but what these people need is contact with other people. Sometimes they lose sight of the fact that Death Row people are still people."

Other changes would allow prisoners to open their 3-by-18 inch windows and to switch the lights on and off themselves. Furniture, other than beds, will also be provided.

The agreement would also give some prisoners more time for outdoor recreation--expanded from three to six hours a week, weather and staff permitting. Greater access to the telephone and to the law library are also listed in the document.

The state is also required to improve the screening of prisoners sent to Mecklenburg, in response to charges that the lack of objective criteria has led to a "hopeless and helpless atmosphere" among the prisoners. The state has already moved out some prisoners in need of mental health care, the ACLU said.