Two inmates of a Virginia prison camp in Fairfax County say they were let out of the prison last year to "make a midnight requisition" of supplies for construction of a cabin-like visitors center from an adjacent highway department maintenance yard.

State highway officials and corrections officials in Richmond said separately that they never approved use of the materials or construction of the building at Prison Camp 30 and were surprised to learn of its existence.

James E. Collins, who was superintendent of the camp at the time, said in an interview he has no knowledge of how the building materials were obtained. He said he ordered the work stopped when he discovered an inmate had begun work on the small structure, which lacked approval by state authorities.

Dave Smith, who succeeded Collins in May, said he directed inmates to complete the building and he did not consider at the time whether the project needed to be approved. He said the prison, which holds about 160 minimum and medium security prisoners, urgently needed the building as a place to search visitors.

Virginia law requires approval by the legislature or governor of new state buildings.

The story of how the 16- by 20-foot visitors' building came to be built with highway department materials is the latest episode at a Virginia prison that some critics say illustrates how loosely the state corrections system has been run.

Camp 30, located west of Fairfax City, is the most escaped-from facility of its kind in Virginia and members of the Fairfax County Board yesterday called for the state to improve management and security there.

Gov. Charles S. Robb has ordered a review of the prison, but the county supervisors said yesterday they want to see the facility closed.

Former inmate Jerry Kramer, 38, of Centreville said he and another inmate built the visitors building at the direction of camp officials, and that guards allowed them out of the prison one night in December to take materials for it from the highway agency's locked maintenance yard.

The other inmate, who remains in the prison and asked not to be named, said in a separate interview Kramer's account was correct.

Kramer and the inmate said they went to the yard, used a prison hacksaw to remove a lock and chain, then used a lawnmower-sized tractor and trailer belonging to the camp to return the materials to the prison. Kramer said they also took highway materials from an unfenced storage area behind the prison used by the highway department.

The highway department's resident Northern Virginia engineer said the prison was not allowed to take the materials without the agency's approval. "There is no agreement with Camp 30 where they can just come in and help themselves," said engineer Frank Gee.

He said even if the material in the unfenced area "is basically going to waste back there . . . we should have been consulted on it, and to our knowledge we were not consulted."

Lynda South, a spokeswoman for the highway department, said that a highway employe did "ask for a new lock and chain last fall or winter for the back gate because he said the old one had rusted through." She could not be more specific.

Thomas E. Scott, assistant superintendent of the prison, said in several interviews that he may have instructed Kramer to get the materials necessary for the building because Kramer knew about materials stored behind the prison and how to purchase supplies for the camp. Scott said he did not direct the inmate to get the materials from the locked highway facility, nor did he take any action that would have allowed the prisoners out of the facility after their 9 p.m. lockdown.

Scott said the building was at least partially built with highway materials and said he believed all such material had come from the unfenced storage area from which he said the prison has previously obtained material.

In one interview, Scott said material was used without seeking specific permission from highway officials.

At another point he said it was standard practice to ask the highway department for whatever was needed before simply taking it. He said he knows of no one who sought permission to take the material used in the building.

Superintendent Smith said that guard Raymond Hite told him last week he had obtained permission to use some of the materials in the building.

Hite said in an interview that he had never sought permission to use any highway department materials in the building and never told Smith that he had approval for the materials.

"What he's referring to, I'm sure, is concrete pipe, and one specific man I told him, who told me: 'There's some pipe there, if you want it you can use it,' " Hite said.

Highway officials say they could find no employes who granted permission to use any materials for the building, although officials in both state agencies said it was common for them to share lawnmowers and some equipment and supplies.

The visitors' building, a small, neat structure with a porch, which resembles a mountain cabin plopped down in the middle of a prison, is used to search inmates' visitors. Cost estimates for its value were not available.

Kramer, who was released in May after serving three years of an 11-year sentence for armed robbery, said he was told last December to make "a midnight requisition on materials" for the building, plans for which Kramer had sketched.

Kramer said he and the other prisoner were let out of the prison twice one night to get the materials.

At the time there was a standing order by Collins that allowed them out of the prison after lockdowns for snow removal and other unspecified maintenance chores. This order was rescinded by Smith, who said he did not believe it was a good security procedure to allow inmates such freedom.

Collins, now a captain at Nottoway Correctional Institute in southern Virginia, said the two inmates were regarded as trusties and, if they were out after dark, their movements should have been recorded in the prison's master log.

"There should have been an officer with them, or they shouldn't have been working where the officers couldn't see them," Collins said.

Prison officials declined yesterday to allow a reporter to see the log book.

Collins, the former superintendent, said there were occasions during his tenure when highway materials were used at the prison, but only in small quantities and never without the expressed approval of highway officials.

In an initial interview last week Scott said: "If anything came from the highway department, if that's the insinuation, I don't think it's a problem of anybody going out at midnight to get that on a 'midnight requisition.' "

"We can simply ask them to borrow a couple of 2x4s, or 4x4s or whatever," Scott said. Such transfers of material are "routine," he said.

Later, after viewing the material stored behind the prison and meeting with highway officials, Scott said he concluded the building had been built of highway materials.

He said he did not ask permission to use the material for the building, and said he is not aware that anyone else at Camp 30 did. He said he had no explanation for why permission was not sought.

Highway officials said permission had been given to use material in the past, and because of staff turnover they could not rule out the possibility that someone may have given permission to take the material used in the visitors' building.

Highway spokeswoman South said the department cannot tell whether the materials came from the unfenced storage area on prison property or from behind the fence, or some combination, because the material was not inventoried precisely.

Corrections and highway department officials minimized the incident, and Scott said Kramer was running "a vendetta" because of tighter security imposed at the prison.

"I think somebody has taken a story that has some facts in there and has construed the story to fit their own personal needs," Scott said.