The chief physician for the D.C. Department of Corrections said yesterday that 70 to 76 percent of the prisoners that enter the District's jail are either on drugs at the time of their arrest and incarceration or have used them recently..

Dr. Robert E. Lee told the City Council's judiciary committee that his estimate is based on interviews and physical examinations conducted by jail officials within hours after prisoners are taken into custody.

The most common drugs used are heroin or heroin substitutes, Lee said in an interview after the hearing. He said jail officials move immediately to detoxify heroin addicts and, in many cases, to administer methadone to them, usually for no more than 21 days. "We are not judge and jury," Lee said. "We treat them humanely."

Most of the nearly 2,200 prisoners at the D.C. Jail in Southeast Washington are awaiting trial. Lee said that the jail is the only corrections facility where methadone is administered, and addicted prisoners at Lorton, the D.C. prison facility in Fairfax County, are sent back to the jail for methadone treatments if their drug use was not previously detected.

Lee said that while the precise number of drug users coming into the jail fluctuates, he estimates that it has never been lower than 65 percent in the dozen years he has been with the department.

Lee was one of about a dozen top department officials appearing before the judiciary committee yesterday to discuss the operation of the city's prison facilities. In addition to drugs, the officials discussed such issues as overcrowding, expansion plans and their efforts to provide better security.

Corrections Director James F. Palmer urged council members to support his request for higher starting salaries for guards as a way to upgrade the department's security force.

Palmer said that the key to better security is a high-caliber, well-trained corrections staff. He said he wants training programs and salaries to be more in line with those of the police department.

Police Chief Maurice Turner has already agreed to have joint training programs for police and corrections officers, Palmer said.

But the department will continue to lose corrections officers to the police department if starting salaries are not raised, Palmer added. According to the D.C. personnel office, the starting pay for police officers is $18,551 annually, nearly $4,000 more than the $14,783 a year entry-level salary for corrections officers. Palmer said he would like to see the starting salary for corrections officers raised to the next pay level, which is $16,425 a year.