A "no read, no release" initiative that Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles launched to improve inmate literacy will be two years old in a few weeks, having won only modest support from the state's prison population.

State officials, who say they are generally satisfied with the program's progress, concede that they have encountered a host of obstacles in trying to improve the lot of hundreds of undereducated prisoners.

"You're working against tremendous odds, not only the social and psychological pressures from peers, but also the personal embarrassment an inmate may feel," said Chris Bridge, the governor's press secretary.

Baliles ordered the creation of the program in February 1986 and it got off the ground seven months later. After tests showed that about 1,400 inmates could not read above the sixth-grade level, 600 prisoners joined the remedial program but 400 refused to participate. Later, 185 of those who did sign up dropped out.

Today, 570 inmates are in the program.

"I think we made a strong showing in the first year, but the magnitude of the problem is enormous," said Vivian E. Watts, the state Cabinet secretary who oversees the prison system of 11,500 inmates. "The heart of the governor's push on this is to send the message loud and clear that literacy is not sissy stuff."

Watts said that the program, which links an inmate's participation to opportunities for parole, will be important as long as incoming prisoners continue to show high levels of illiteracy. Last year, for instance, 25 percent of those convicted of felonies in Virginia courts had never entered high school, and two-thirds of the felons had not graduated from high school, Watts said.

The state has spent more than $1 million on the program and is trying some new ideas to increase participation. Watts said her staff is trying to recruit more inmate tutors to teach fellow prisoners, and private volunteers and public school teachers have pitched in.

Meanwhile, Charles K. Price, the state corrections official who oversaw the first phase of the literacy program, resigned his post last week to become a special assistant to the superintendent of Virginia public schools.

Price and Watts, his boss, denied reports that he was leaving because Baliles was dissatisfied with the program's progress. Rather, Price said, the switch was a "career change."