More than 60 Lorton Reformatory inmates, some armed with pipes and chains, set fire to a mattress and fought among themselves for about 20 minutes yesterday until corrections officers in riot gear quelled the melee with tear gas, D.C. Department of Corrections and police officials reported.

Four inmates received minor lacerations in the disturbance, which began about 4 p.m. at the prison's Youth Center 2 facility, the officials said. They said the fighting broke out after two prisoners were caught by others stealing property from inmate lockers.

At a news conference outside the youth facility, which is part of the District's sprawling prison complex in southern Fairfax County, Corrections Director James Palmer said that the incident was "very short-lived" and that there was never any threat of escapes.

Palmer said Fairfax County police, D.C. police and the FBI were promptly notified of the incident. Palmer and other city officials were harshly criticized for failing to notify county officials about a riot at the prison's Central facility Sept. 23 in which 13 inmates were wounded by shotgun blasts fired by guards.

John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, last night blamed yesterday's disturbance on overcrowding. Corrections officials said Youth Center 2 has an official capacity of 255 inmates, but was housing 290 yesterday. Most of the inmates at the youth center are 18 to 22 years old and were sentenced under the federal Youth Corrections Act.

"One of the major problems is overcrowding in these [Lorton] facilities," Herrity said, adding that there may be "criminal negligence on the part of D.C." for allowing high levels of overcrowding to exist. "We have to get them [the prisoners] into a federal penitentiary somewhere else," he said.

Herrity added: "Nobody got out, and that's the bottom line."

The city's Corrections Department, acting under a court order, reduced overcrowding at the D.C. Jail last fall, in part by transferring some inmates to facilities at Lorton.

Officials said that about 60 to 100 inmates participated in yesterday's disturbance, which they said began when two inmates, described by one D.C. police official as "notorious strong-arm types," were caught stealing property from other inmates' lockers.

About 4 p.m., as prisoners were leaving their dormitories to go to dinner, a fight broke out that soon escalated into a brawl, with large groups of inmates choosing sides in the argument and battling each other with fists, pipes and chains, according to county police officials.

Fairfax County police were notified and sent about 60 police officers and other county employes to surround the facility and guard against escapes, the officials said. The county police helicopter circled overhead with a spotlight trained on the ground while police dogs patrolled outside the prison's fence.

About 40 corrections officer from the youth center were held over from the shift that ended at 4 p.m., corrections officials said, and they were joined by more than 100 officers from Lorton's other facilities, some dressed in helmets and flak jackets and carring shields and batons.

When the inmates refused to stop fighting, officials said, officers fired about 10 rounds of tear gas into their midst and forced them to the facility's athletic field, where the incident was defused.

The inmates were herded into the prison's gymnasium about 5:50 p.m. and held there while the facility was searched for weapons, according to Corrections Department spokesman LeRoy Anderson. He said about 10 homemade weapons were found in the "shakedown." An inmate count was completed at 8 p.m. and dinner was served a half-hour later, he said.

Anderson said four inmates, none of whom was identified, received lacerations during the fracas and were taken to D.C. General Hospital. He said three of the inmates suffered head wounds and the fourth a knee injury. Although their conditions could not be learned last night, Anderson said that none of the injuries was believed to be serious.

Officials said the two inmates who were accused of stealing from lockers were placed in isolation.

The disturbance was reminiscent of an incident on Dec. 7, 1984, when about 100 inmates from Youth Center 2 stormed the facility's gymnasium, where 140 inmates from Youth Center 1 were being housed temporarily after methane gas explosions forced the evacuation of their facility.

There were no reported injuries in that incident, which was sparked by reduced inmate privileges caused by overcrowding.