Six years ago Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. used to joke with County Board Chairman John F. Herrity that "someday someone will discover Camp 30 like they've discovered Lorton."

Horan was right. In the past month, Fairfax Correctional Unit 30, the troubled state prison two miles west of Fair Oaks Mall, has been propelled onto center stage.

The camp, it turns out, had an escape rate higher than any other prison of its kind in the state in the past decade, as well as what some claim was slipshod management and poor procedures to alert county police of escapes. Gov. Charles S. Robb, responding to complaints from county officials, last week ordered a broad investigation of the camp.

All this has come about as the state's gubernatorial campaign heats up. And to the surprise of few politicians, Camp 30 has become a partisan issue, the subject of indignant demands from county politicians.

Herrity, a Republican and a politician who rarely misses a chance to strafe the District of Columbia over problems at its Lorton Reformatory in southern Fairfax, fired the first shot last week. He demanded that Virginia close Camp 30 and sought to implicate former state attorney general Gerald L. Baliles, the Democratic candidate for governor, for some of the prison's problems.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Wyatt B. Durrette, a former legislator from Fairfax County, joined him, blasting security at the camp and demanding the investigation that Robb later ordered.

Although few doubt there are problems at the camp, some Democratic officeholders claimed there was more than civic-mindedness to the GOP salvos. Escapes and unrest at prisons across Virginia have been a troublesome problem for Democrat Robb, and Republicans would like to pin the issue on both the governor and Baliles.

On Monday the Democrats counterattacked: county prosecutor Horan charged that escapes at the camp were higher during the administration of Robb's Republican predecessor, John N. Dalton.

Indeed, according to state figures, there were more escapes at Camp 30 in 1980 and 1981 -- the last two years of the Dalton administration -- than there have been to date under Robb.

Some GOP politicians, such as Springfield Supervisor Elaine McConnell, insisted that the issue of security at Camp 30 was "above politics."

Horan, who made a rare appearance before the County Board at the invitation of a fellow Democrat, Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, declared, "It's a politics- blind facility."

Horan, who made a rare appearance before the County board at the invitation of a fellow Democrat, Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, declared, "It's a politics-blind facility."

But Horan also appeared to be chiding Herrity for playing politics with the prison as much as adding his own voice to the growing chorus denouncing Camp 30's management.

Herrity "seems much more concerned about the same problem when Robb is in the governorship than he was when Dalton was the governor," Horan said in an interview Tuesday. "Certainly the conditions were just as bad under Dalton as they are now."

Not seeking to minimize the risks posed by the prison, Horan urged the County Board to lobby the Virginia Department of Corrections aggressively for reforms.

"Sometimes you have to hit a mule in the head with an ax to get its attention," Horan said. "Whether or not it reacts is another matter."

Fairfax Democrats were in no mood to be joshed. Democratic Supervisors Audrey Moore and James M. Scott called Herrity irresponsible for demanding that Camp 30 be closed. They pointed to a meeting scheduled today between officials from the county and state corrections department as proof that the state is prepared to address county concerns. Herrity, they said, was making another Lorton out of Camp 30, at the Democrats' expense.

Herrity, with a twinkle in his eye and a glance at Democrats in the boardroom, quipped: "Sometimes you have to hit a donkey over the head to get its attention."