Virginia prisons official Fred E. Jordan Jr. wasn't about to let anything mar the state's big chance to brag here today about the dramatic improvements at the troubled Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

Not the apparent arson that forced the evacuation of 89 inmates from the State Penitentiary in Richmond earlier in the day.

Not the suspension yesterday of Warden David A. Garraghty at the neighboring Nottoway Correctional Center on what Garraghty said were accusations of insubordination.

"This is press day at Mecklenburg," declared Jordan, a regional prison official. He was eager to keep negative issues from cropping up during a carefully orchestrated media tour of Mecklenburg two days before the first anniversary of the biggest death row escape in U.S. history.

Despite the transformation of Mecklenburg from a cauldron of inmate unrest to what even its critics say is a well-managed prison, the state's huge prison system and Mecklenburg remain beset with numerous problems.

Toni V. Bair, the Utah prison administrator who was named Mecklenburg's warden four months ago, was quick to note that problems remain. On Tuesday officials discovered a homemade knife hidden between the pages of a magazine one inmate had asked a librarian to pass on to another inmate.

The alleged arson at the aging State Penitentiary today was another reminder that inmates have become distraught over the increasing number of executions there -- two within the last year and several more scheduled for the next year. Officials said an inmate started the blaze in a heating space between the cells in the section that houses some of the prison's toughest inmates.

Garraghty, warden at Nottoway, who has been an outspoken critic of the prison system and Gov. Charles S. Robb, has been suspended for five days without pay for "refusing to follow orders," said Jordan. He declined to provide further details.

Many of those problems pale when compared with the violence and unrest that rocked the prison system last summer, prompting massive upheavals in the corrections department.

Officials reassigned most of Mecklenburg's top administrators, and almost half of the staff that was here at the time of the May 31 death row breakout has since been replaced, Bair said. All six inmates who escaped were eventually recaptured and two have since been executed.

Armed with press releases and descriptive anecdotes, Bair chronicled what he and others consider major improvements at the prison. He told reporters that the prison had been strewn with trash, ankle-deep in spots, when he arrived, that it was dirty and grimy and that the "ranting and raving" of the 187 inmates then in the prison regularly bounced through the hallways and across the sparse prison yards.

He contrasted that to today's Mecklenburg, where guard-inmate relations have improved dramatically, where library, recreation and educational programs have been expanded greatly and where the walls have been scoured and painted and the corridors are litter-free.

Then, in what seemed more like freshman orientation on a college campus than a glimpse into prison life, Mecklenburg officials led small groups of reporters across the grassy prison grounds and into the squat, brick cell block buildings.

While some prisoners, eager to send their messages to the outside world, clustered around reporters, others peered suspiciously at the crowd through the tiny food slots in the solid steel doors of their cells.

There was Dimetrius Odom, 25, of Washington, who is serving a life sentence for murder, explaining the changes he's seen since Bair took over. "The others trained all the guards to be against us. Bair -- he's all right," said Odom. "He gives us the benefit of the doubt."

Not all of the prisoners were so enthusiastic. "You need to talk to some of us instead of giving their distorted versions!" one inmate yelled from a second-floor cell.

A sign of the changing times at the prison hung over a garbage can in the massive prison kitchen: "Aluminum cans only. Project for Jaycees." One of Bair's innovations has been to open a Junior Chamber of Commerce chapter at the maximum security facility.