How does "Prison Estates" or "Prison Palisades" sound for a new housing project in Northern Virginia? Or "Lorton II?"

Whatever it's called, former state attorney general Andrew P. Miller, a resident of Alexandria and a member of the State Board of Corrections, has revived a politically sensitive issue by suggesting that any new large prison Virginia builds should be within 50 miles of Washington.

"It ought to be located in Northern Virginia," said Miller, noting that one-fourth of the state prisoners come from the area and that there is no major state prison facility north of Richmond. (Lorton, in southern Fairfax, is run by the District of Columbia.)

Miller's idea caught some legislators cold. "Andy Miller said that? I'm aghast," said State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax). "But no further comment until I talk with Andy."

House Minority Leader Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) said, "I really can't argue with the logic of it," but he said it would be a very difficult plan to sell. He said he believes local governments would fight the idea "although the policy is probably correct."

While no new prison is on the drawing board , it's more than an academic question. Gov. Charles S. Robb, who was rebuffed early in his term after suggesting that a new prison might be located in Northern Virginia, has included $200,000 in his latest budget proposals to plan a new, 500-bed maximum security facility.

Corrections officials and legislators generally agree that a new prison will be needed by the early 1990s to house Virginia's growing inmate population that now has nearly 10,000 inmates in 41 institutions.

"The reason you have so many prisons on the south side of the James River is because those counties are economically depressed," Miller said in an interview during a weekend meeting of the Virginia Bar Association in Williamsburg.

Miller was the moderator of a two-hour discussion on Virginia prisons, an issue Robb called the state's "number one problem," citing the May 31 escape of six death row inmates from the Mecklenburg prison, subsequent disturbances there and other problems.

Miller said Mecklenburg, intended to be a model facility, and many other facilities are too isolated in rural areas and lack support services and qualified professionals needed for mental health clinics and other specialized services.

He dismissed a suggestion that Virginia could agree with the District of Columbia, which also has said it needs more prison space, to build a prison on the city's 3,000-acre Lorton complex in southern Fairfax. Miller, who attempted to sue the District over Lorton while Linwood Holton was governor, said that it would be difficult to agree with the District on how to run a joint prison.

More importantly, probably, Fairfax officials have kept up a steady fight to force the closing of Lorton and would surely fight a state prison there. In addition, any new prison would take thousands of acres that would be prime development space.

Miller, who served seven years as attorney general and lost close races for U.S. senator and the Democratic nomination for governor, acknowledged that the decision would not be easy.

The prisons issue is likely to be a focus of this year's statewide campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Although there has been no serious injury or death related to the escapes and disturbances, many Democrats are openly worried that another escape, in which someone may get hurt, could occur near the elections.

The conference at Williamsburg drew several well-known professionals on prison issues, including Norval Morris, a professor of criminal law at the University of Chicago Law School, and Alvin J. Bronstein, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is (National Caucus of Labor Committees photo) Harry L. Greene, a Northern Virginia businessman and former inmate who serves on the corrections board, and Allyn R. Sielaff, the new director of the state prison system.

Bronstein, an advocate of prisoners' rights, warned that people really should not expect prisons to achieve miracles in rehabilitating inmates. "The most we can do in our prisons is prevent people from getting worse . . . . We ought not to fool ourselves," Bronstein said.

He said prisons are expensive and that "prison space has to be considered a scarce resource . . . . Preserve them for those we really need to keep out of society. The more you build, the more you fill," Bronstein warned. He suggested that prisons should keep inmates as busy and as productive as possible to avoid physical and mental deterioration that leads to violence.

Morris said many prison tensions stem from "deep seated, long established problems of race relations" that result in a disproportionate share of minorities in prisons.

And, referring to federal court intervention in more than 35 states, Morris warned that there are serious problems in how prisons operate and that it is "ludicrous to think the federal district courts are sentimental ninnies."

Sielaff, who in late November became Robb's third prison director, insisted that many problems could be solved with better management. Despite the recent problems, Sielaff said, Virginia's escape rate is less than 20 percent of what it was a decade ago. He also said prisoners are tougher now and are usually charged with more serious crimes and with longer prison terms than before.

"We need to do the same kinds of things that the old Chrysler Corp. did," Sielaff said, suggesting a revamping of management with "humanity and decency" to avoid making problems worse.

"There has to be a balance," Sielaff said later.

"Security is the number one issue," he acknowledged, saying that improvement may come slowly. "We need changes in management practices that are not going to occur overnight."