A top-level official in the District's Corrections Department is off on a taxpayer-paid three-week trip to China to help advise that country how to run its prison system.

Gwynne Washington, assistant director of the D.C. Department of Corrections in charge of prison education, left during the weekend on the $3,600 "informational exchange," according to corrections officials.

"China is in a period of great change and development and needs some expertise from a proven system," said a Corrections Department spokesman.

Washington runs the so-called Specter Initiative, a $41 million special appropriation for vocational and educational training at the city's Lorton complex in Fairfax County, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

The program has come under severe criticism for inefficiency and low inmate participation, and it is being audited by the General Accounting Office.

Washington testified this spring before a grand jury probing alleged corruption by city officials.

The Corrections Department spokesman said Washington, who has worked for the agency for about two years, was invited by Global Interactions, a nonprofit educational association based in Phoenix, to provide "an example of what America is doing about prisons."

Washington is taking the city-paid trip at a time when the District's Corrections Department is being held in contempt of court and battling several lawsuits over prison conditions.

The department, which has been harshly criticized for its handling of the prison crowding crisis, released more than 800 prisoners early this summer to ease crowding in the facilities; the action was authorized by the D.C. Council.

Washington is studying the Chinese criminal justice system and visiting Chinese courts, correctional facilities, law schools and university-based criminal justice programs, penal agency officials said.

She will be traveling to historic and cultural sights throughout mainland China and Hong Kong, "to put in perspective her professional work," said Jerrie Uberle, president of Global Interactions. Washington also oversees the prison system's industrial printing shop, educational programs and agricultural programs at Lorton, corrections officials said.

Global Interactions, a two-year-old association, organizes educational trips, such as the journey to China, for people to exchange research, technology and professional information, Uberle said.

Uberle said that Washington is one of 18 delegates that the group chose based on their backgrounds and "topical outlines" they submitted.

"It's really exciting, especially the results and contacts made after the exchange," said Uberle. "It's like a string of Chinese firecrackers. The excitement of the exchange just keeps going on afterwards."