Four inmates escaped last night from the Nottoway Correctional Center in Southside Virginia, and a fifth was believed to have joined in the breakout, corrections officials reported. They said two of the five were convicted in Fairfax County.

One of the fugitives was recaptured within a quarter mile of the prison early today, but details were not available, authorities said.

The escapees cut through two chain link fences that surround the medium-security institution opened four months ago about 45 miles southwest of Richmond in rural Nottoway County, according to corrections spokesman Wayne Farrar.

A guard in a tower above where the fences were cut saw four inmates running across a parking lot outside the prison perimeter shortly after 6 p.m. She shouted at them and tried to shoot, but before she could fire her shotgun, they plunged into a nearby woods, Farrar said.

In addition to the four inmates seen fleeing, a fifth was unaccounted for late last night, and Farrar said he believed it "safe to say" that he also escaped.

A search for the fugitives using dogs and a helicopter was under way near the prison area.

The breakout appeared to be the largest at any Virginia prison since six death row inmates escaped May 31 from the state's highest security institution, the Mecklenburg Correctional Center. All six were eventually recaptured.

The two presumed Nottoway escapees who were convicted in Fairfax were identified by Farrar as Anthony Fox, 29, and Richard T. Vescuso, 27. The spokesman said Fox was sent to Nottoway in August to serve a sentence of life plus 335 years after being convicted of rape, sodomy and abduction.

Farrar said Vescuso, who was also sent to Nottoway in August, was serving a 22-year sentence after being convicted of robbery.

The other presumed escapees were identified by Farrar as Robert Stockman, 23, who was convicted of breaking and entering in Roanoke, and Jimmy Jones, 38, convicted of armed robbery in Henry County, and Jimmy Lee Hollingsworth, 23, convicted of burglary.