Escapes from Virginia prisons in the last 12 months have dropped dramatically -- to their lowest point in a decade -- according to corrections officials, who credit increased security and employe morale in a system shaken in 1984 by the biggest escape from a death row in U.S. history.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, there were 54 escapes, including 27 trustees who walked away from unguarded posts, compared to 108 the previous year, according to a report released today.

The 108 escapes included the breakout in May 1984 of six death-row inmates from the Mecklenburg Correctional Center near the North Carolina boarder, which triggered a massive review and shakeup of the state's troubled penal system and led to the expenditure of millions of dollars on security and personnel changes. The death-row inmates were captured, and two have since died in the state's electric chair.

The report showed that in the last 10 years, while the state's prison population has nearly doubled, to more than 10,000 inmates, the overall rate of escapes has dropped from a high of 87.2 per 1,000 prisoners to 5.2 per 1,000.

"That's minuscule," said Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association in College Park. The rate is "extremely favorable" compared to the rest of the country, where 10 escapes per 1,000 inmates is not uncommon, Travisono said. He said there were no direct comparisons among states because of variations in how the numbers are compiled.

"Naturally, we're pleased that we have the best yearly escape record in the history of the department," said Virginia corrections spokesman Wayne Farrar. The Department of Corrections was established as an independent agency, replacing the state's old welfare and corrections office, in 1974.

In the last year of operations before the reorganization, there were 513 escapes among a population of 5,886 inmates, Farrar said.

There have been 22 escapes since January, when Corrections Director Alan R. Sielaff, a former top aide to Gov. Charles S. Robb, was named to replace Robert Landon.

Sielaff is the third corrections director named by Robb who, in his State of the Commonwealth address, called corrections the state's "No. 1 problem."

Republicans in this year's statewide elections are attempting to make the corrections problems an issue in the gubernatorial race between Republican Wyatt B. Durrette and Democrat Gerald L. Baliles. Both Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly voted this year to approve millions of dollars in new spending for the department, including more than 10 percent pay raises for many of the 3,600 uniformed guards.

"I don't think anybody is saying anything publicly about the political aspects" of the prisons operations, Farrar said of the corrections department. "Corrections are always in the political arena. We're never really free from that."

The corrections department, with a budget of about $260 million, includes 42 major adult institutions, one work-release facility and eight juvenile units scattered throughout the state. There is a total of about 8,000 employes.