Convicted murderer Charles Jefferson sized up boxing star Thomas Hearns at Lorton Reformatory yesterday and almost sighed with disappointment. The inmate had wanted some of his charges to get a lick at the "Hit Man from Detroit."

"He could get his head hit down here," said Jefferson, coach of the prison's boxing team, which consists of men with much to be frustrated about -- convictions of first-degree murder, armed robbery and cocaine dealing. "We'd love to have him change up so I could sic some fighters over."

The middleweight boxing champion politely declined to spar, but he added "all of the guys want to get at me. They'd probably do well."

Instead, Hearns spent yesterday afternoon watching several exhibition matches in a packed gymnasium. He joined in the loud applause, offered tips to eager inmates, and wielded a microphone as he made his rounds of the crowd.

For Hearns, the second visit in five years to the prison was a mission of inspiration. "I came just to talk, to try to encourage them about the good side of life."

But for the inmates, the famous boxer's appearance provided much more. He was an exhilarating break from the lulling confinement.

"It's a good experience for us to experience him and talk to him," said Benson West-El, 22, a heavyweight boxer on the prison team who was convicted of first-degree murder. "It's enlightened me. I've always wanted to meet somebody who would be a role model."

Ronald Brown, who is serving a 10-year term for armed robbery, agreed. "When you get an opportunity to see Tommy Hearns, it kind of puts some fire in you to be productive."

From a corner of a checkpoint office at the prison, Anthony Wiggins, 24, saw Hearns' white stretch limousine roll up. And he watched as Hearns and his entourage got the shakedown from guards.

Wiggins, who has lived mostly in institutions since age 13 and is now serving seven years for armed robbery, said he is no boxer, but added that he would not be afraid to fight Hearns. "I'd go against him with a bat. I'm talking a baseball bat. One thing I can tell you, I could have fear of a lot of people, but they wouldn't know it. Once a man sees another man fears him, he's going to be taken advantage of."

Several inmates said they thought they might give Hearns a good fight, but demurred to the experience of the boxer who has won titles in four weight classes.

"I'd try my best," said Kevin Fullington, 23, a member of the prison's Camp of Champs boxing team who is serving time for a drug distribution conviction. "I wouldn't try to go hard. I don't feel like I'm in that type of shape, but I'd work him."

Prison officials said special events, such as the Hearns visit, are not rare, though often scheduled during the holidays. "It gives them {inmates} a sense of good feelings for the holidays," said Dave Link, a Corrections Department official.

Hearns said he was impressed with what he saw. "I see potential. I think the guys need more work, but when you start off with something you always start off green . . . . This is the most difficult game one could want to step into. This here separates the men from the boys."

After two hours at the sprawling Lorton compound, Hearns slipped into his black leather trench coat and a no-nonsense prison guard bellowed to lingering inmates, "All right, gentlemen, go back."

It was time for the afternoon head count.