Richard Honesty carefully spread the milky-gray mortar in between bricks he was laying to frame a new bathroom window. Nearby, George Shaw screwed several loose electrical wires into the receptacle of a kitchen wall. Downstairs, James Johnson installed drywall in the laundry room.

Throughout the day, to the din of hammering and drilling, Honesty, Shaw and Johnson are refurbishing a decrepit relief center in Northwest Washington. Then at night they go home -- to Lorton Reformatory.

For a week, 10 inmates from Lorton's minimum-security prison have been renovating the Cooperative Urban Ministries Center, a three-story brick town house at 1418 Ninth St. NW that has fallen into disrepair. The center provides food, clothing, showers, laundry facilities and counseling services to homeless and low-income people.

With less than a year to serve for crimes ranging from murder to drug distribution, the inmates say the 10-day project affords them a chance to sharpen their skills and give something back to the community.

"Since I had some skills and had committed a crime, I thought it would give me an opportunity to contribute something to a worthy cause," said Honesty, 32, who has been serving time since January for distributing heroin.

When he is released next July, Honesty hopes to receive city funds set aside for minority businesses so he can begin his own renovation company. "What better minority than an ex-prisoner?" Honesty asked.

The project is the first to be sponsored in the Washington area by the national Prison Fellowship Ministries, area churches, the national Congress on the Bible II conference and the D.C. Department of Corrections.

Unlike Lorton's standard work-training programs, in which 100 inmates leave the minimum-security facility each day and work for pay, the inmates restoring the relief center are working as unpaid volunteers. The prisoners know, however, that a little carpentry work for a worthy cause doesn't hurt their chances for parole.

"I'm trying to help myself," said Kevin Ford-Bey, 33, a carpenter by trade who has served 22 months for distributing heroin. "Now that I've been incarcerated, it gives me a different perspective on life. You don't realize how much your family means to you until you're separated from them."

Corrections Director Hallem H. Williams Jr. praised the project, calling it "an example of a way in which the public can be made to understand that these men and women can be productive contributors to the community. It helps the self-esteem of the {inmate}, it is done at a cost that is more than likely cheaper than it would have been, and there is a great deal of good derived by the receivers of the service."

Frank Phillips, administrator of the facility, said that an unarmed corrections officer is with the inmates at all times. However, the Rev. Al Lawrence, the prison fellowship ministries' area director, said the prisoners are "working on the honor system with no supervision and no one guarding the front or back door."

Some of the inmates see the project as a way to make the transition from prison life to society. "It's a chance to work your way out," said Melvin Simon, 30, who is repairing the center's plumbing. "It's a way to feel your way back."

And H. Gibson-Bey, the enthusiastic leader of the work crew, says the work "breaks the boredom and monotony" of life in prison. "All we're doing is just sitting around, wasting away."