Showing a visitor around Alexandria's new $16 million jail, Sheriff James H. Dunning picked his words as carefully as he picked his way through the mud and construction debris.

"This is the remedial area," he said, pointing to a small common room surrounded by two floors of cells. "We don't call it maximum security -- we don't want to make it sound like it's for tough guys."

A small distinction, perhaps, but an important one to the sheriff and his deputies, who will be presiding over a jail that is new physically and philosophically. The eight-story, 365-bed Alexandria Detention Center, part of a $24 million Public Safety Complex in the city's West End, will be a vast change from the dilapidated, overcrowded jail on Princess Street in Old Town, parts of which date back to 1825. That structure was condemned by court orders upholding inmates' contentions that its legendary overcrowding, heat and roach infestation violated their constitutional rights.

For all its innovations, however, the new jail will not solve the problem the sheriff's department had last weekend, when a woman who was to serve a 3 1/2-hour sentence in a holding cell in the Alexandria courthouse was left for 69 hours without food or water because a sheriff's deputy forgot about her. "This was a case where the deputy made a very serious mistake," Dunning said, explaining that security procedures in the courthouse and the jail are separate.

Space, air conditioning and cleanliness are only part of what will set the new facility apart from the old jail and from most American jails. The Alexandria Detention Center, which expects to receive inmates in January, will be a "direct supervision" facility, which means it will operate according to a relatively new concept in which guards carry neither weapons nor keys, and circulate among the inmates. In such environments, it has been found, inmates are less violent, and fewer inmates and guards are injured.

"The days of the turnkey are over," said Dunning. "In the new jail, the deputy owns the place because he's in with them. We maintain control of everything. The deputy should know his inmates, what the tensions are, and be aware of problems."

"The deputy is the leader, not the keeper," said Capt. Eric Geiger, who knows every inch of the jail, down to the thickness of the windows and the strength of the concrete poured into the walls.

The new jail, located in industrial Cameron Valley near the Eisenhower Avenue Metro station, has bars only where air ducts penetrate security walls. Windows are covered with unbreakable glazing. The doors are metal, although Dunning said that in this sort of jail, doors can be wood since vandalism is so low.

"When the facilities are good, there's peer pressure not to vandalize," said Dunning. The new jail's amenities include carpeting, mirrors and multiple TVs to avoid squabbles over program selection. There is also 24-hour access to pay telephones, but not in the remedial areas, where inmates receive only what is legally required as an incentive to improve their behavior.

As for the color, "It's our 'Color Me Beautiful' jail," laughed Dunning, waving his arm with a flourish toward paint samples and color swatches. "It's basically white, with accent colors on walls and fabrics, although there aren't too many fabrics. We didn't use color too much for behavior modification. One thing, though -- if you paint everything institutional green, you're asking someone to write on it."

There are special areas for work release and weekend-only inmates, two pods of 24 cells each for women and juveniles, and facilities for the handicapped. By federal law, each 70-square-foot cell has two windows, which, at three inches wide, look narrow from the outside, but appear wider inside because of the wall angles. The halls will have louvered windows that can be opened if the air conditioning fails -- but not far enough for anyone to crawl out.

Dunning said these amenities are designed to benefit the city's pocketbook and the staff more than the inmates. "People say TVs are expensive, but the real savings is personnel," he said. "It costs the city $25,000 to $30,000 a year for each deputy, and over the course of 15 years, it's quite a savings when you don't need as many." The new facility will have 2 1/2 times the capacity of the current jail but will require only twice the staff, he said.

In other areas of the country where direct supervision facilities have opened, Dunning said, deputies trained to guard traditional facilities have often been leery of mingling with prisoners. "You hear horror stories of new-generation jails with 50 percent guard turnover in the first year," said Dunning. "But in the long haul, the turnover is far less. It's a more challenging, professional job.

"The key to lowering attrition is attracting top people. That's why we need to raise salaries of the deputies," said Dunning, who has asked the City Council to raise deputy sheriffs' salaries to match police officers'.

"We have a terrifically professional staff, but we have to get better. I'm optimistic we can do it. We anticipate most will and can [adjust]. They know what it's like. We've been getting everybody ready."

Specifically, Dunning has been arranging visits to similar facilities in Bucks County, Pa., and some staff have visited the Contra Costa County, Calif., jail, which Dunning called "the model for local direct supervision jails." Deputies are also "getting a lot of training in interpersonal communications," said Geiger. "You have to know how to deal with people."

"But we wouldn't put someone in a position they can't handle," said Dunning. "It's an intense atmosphere -- we won't have people work a full shift in the pods," he said, referring to areas consisting of a day room and 48 individual cells, all of which are to be under the direct supervision of one deputy, aided by colleagues in the control rooms and throughout the building.

Although the inmate-to-deputy ratio will be higher, Dunning said security will be far greater. All doors will have electronic locks that can be opened only from control centers on each floor. This will be the primary security feature, said Dunning. "There's the electronics, concrete, glazing -- but the main thing is there's nothing to be gained by taking a guard as hostage. The deputy has no keys -- he can't get out himself. In the present facility, if you get a deputy with the right key, you're out."

Other security features at the new jail will include remote cameras at all doors; closed-circuit TVs; control panels that indicate whether doors are locked; sound monitors that activate when noise reaches a certain level, allowing deputies to stop fights at the shouting stage; a paging system, and a duress alarm activated by a pen-sized device that each guard will carry. That device and a radio are all that the guards will carry to protect themselves.

There will be a fence around the entire Public Safety Complex, in which the jail is housed, but the fence "is designed to keep people away," said Dunning. The Alexandria Police Department will move its headquarters to the new complex from its building behind the old jail, where officers on desk duty were so tightly packed in that they bumped knees. The complex will also house magistrates and some Sheriff's Department offices.

Dunning said counseling and educational resources for inmates also will improve in the new facility. "We'll have mental health professionals in the system," said Dunning. "Now, we just deal with those at risk for suicide. In the new facility, our approach will be much more sophisticated."

Dunning has also begun literacy testing for prisoners who stay longer than three days. Although the numbers aren't in, he said "a substantial number" of the prison population is illiterate. "What we don't know is how many have learning disabilities and emotional disturbances. By law, handicapped people under 22 are entitled to assistance -- they're probably unaware of that. We want to help them get that assistance when they leave jail, and while they're here."

"We have space for a lot of programs here," said Dunning, pointing out a large classroom. "But we need volunteers -- tutors, counselors. We'll be starting an active, aggressive recruitment of volunteers."

The new jail also has large indoor and outdoor recreational areas, the source of some controversy. "I gave [the jail] a tough time initially," said Alexandria Mayor James Moran, "because there were too many frills." City Council member Patricia Ticer, however, said, "That's been one of the problems in the other jail, that there's been no room for the men and women to exercise."

Among the other problems with the Princess Street jail are the security nightmares created by long corridors, blind spots and the building's age. Several years ago, one inmate dug through a ceiling thought to be concrete with the shaft of a door knob, escaped out a window, and ran through Old Town to freedom. He was apprehended the next day at his girlfriend's house.

The City Council has decided to keep parts of the old jail. Last month, council agreed that the city should sell the site to a developer who will rehabilitate historic parts of the building, knock down the rest, build some town houses and sell other lots for private development, so the area will be architecturally varied. CAPTION: Picture, Alexandria's $24 million Public Safety Complex will include a 365-bed "direct supervision" jail, located in the front part of the complex; Picture 2, Alexandria Sheriff James H. Dunning looks out of a cell in a section of the new jail that will be for work-release inmates. The Washington Post