A rise in illegal drug use by correctional officers, which has hit the District's prison system as well as others throughout the country, has prompted 31 state systems to adopt some form of drug testing for their uniformed work force.

Many of the states are testing correctional officers as part of a larger effort involving several categories of state employees; Maryland, for example, is preparing to implement random testing of 15,000 state employees in "sensitive jobs," including correctional officers.

In the District and Virginia, meanwhile, prison officials are studying whether to begin drug-testing programs for their correctional employees. The District now tests applicants only; Virginia has no testing program.

Demographics are playing an important role in the sudden rise in drug use among correctional officers: During the last several years, older officers have begun to retire and have been replaced by younger ones, who tend to be more prone to use illegal drugs.

Many of these younger officers have grown up in environments where illegal drug use is commonplace and illegal drugs are available, according to those interviewed. Both rural and urban prisons are reporting rising drug use among their staffs.

"Even though the national trend {of drug use} is going down, the workplace trend is up and is going to stay up because we're constantly pumping" younger workers into the work force, said Robert L. DuPont, a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse who now advises governments and businesses on drug testing.

Several states developed their programs after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that allowed random testing of workers in public safety jobs. According to one national survey, only 19 states had testing programs as recently as two years ago.

Louisiana and New Mexico began random drug testing of their correctional officers earlier this year; a third state, Georgia, has approved a random drug-testing program, but has delayed it while a legal challenge is being resolved.

Twenty-seven other states have "probable cause" programs, a less comprehensive approach that involves testing only those employees who show signs of drug use; 15 of those states also test job applicants.

It is difficult to find reliable statistics on the level of drug use among correctional officers. Walter B. Ridley, the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, estimates that 5 percent to 7 percent of the department's work force uses drugs, a percentage that he says is comparable to that in other government agencies and businesses. But union officials disagree, saying their contacts with drug-addicted officers lead them to believe the percentage is 25 percent or higher.

The question of drug use at the D.C. jail was spotlighted this summer when The Washington Post published a five-part series that detailed widespread drug use by a minority of the jail's 600-odd officers. The series described how cocaine in the mid-1980s fueled the spread of drug use among some jail officers, causing a deep split between users and non-users and endangering the jail's overall security.

In interviews before the series was published and in comments afterward, Ridley strongly disputed any suggestion of disproportionate drug use among the 2,507 officers at the jail and the District's seven prisons. "I tend to believe it is a very, very small percentage," Ridley said, stressing that even a small percentage is intolerable.

Other prison officials have a different reading of the situation in their states. New Mexico's top prison official, O.L. McCotter, says that drug-abusing officers are a major problem but that he has found "a lot of {corrections officials} don't want to talk about it," according to Don Caviness, a spokesman for McCotter.

DuPont said McCotter's experience is consistent with what he has seen in dealing with drug use in the workplace. "That's the way it is with an organization," DuPont said. A boss who publicly admits that there is extensive drug use among his employees becomes ineffective with the local legislature, political leaders and within his own bureaucracy, DuPont said.

One prison official who does not fit DuPont's characterization is Lance Newsome, now Georgia's deputy commissioner of prisons. In 1984, while Newsome was the warden of the Reidsville maximum-security prison, an incident involving a drug-using officer led him to push for a random testing program.

The drug-using officer had smuggled a gun, ammunition and prescription drugs to an inmate, who used the weapon to escape. The incident, Newsome said, led to a consensus that a random testing program was necessary. In the first month, eight of 20 officers tested were found positive for marijuana use.

Newsome said drug use at Reidsville, which is in a rural community 200 miles south of Atlanta, declined dramatically because of the random testing program. Officers who tested positive were fired; officers who came forward voluntarily and admitted to having a drug problem were referred to the prison system's employee assistance program.

"The assumption that no drugs are in rural areas is certainly not correct," said Newsome, who later helped develop a statewide testing program for prison personnel.

Unions representing prison officers have challenged some of the drug-testing programs on constitutional grounds with some success. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' random drug-testing program was halted before it could begin in 1988 after the American Federation of Government Employees obtained a federal court injunction on grounds that it constituted an illegal search.

Maryland's program was delayed this summer while union officials and Gov. William Donald Schaefer's office fought over whether a positive test would result in immediate dismissal. The governor backed off, agreeing to offer first offenders an opportunity to seek help and to fire only those workers who tested positive twice.

In May, after a three-year legal battle, a New York state appeals court approved New York City's program for testing its correctional officers. The court based its ruling, in part, on evidence that drug use was a problem; 238 officers had tested positive for drug use from 1987 to 1989 under the prison system's probable cause policy.

Ruby Ryles, a deputy commissioner of New York City's jail system, said no date has been set for random testing to begin. The department expects to test 15 percent of its officer corps each year, Ryles said.

New York City's system has hired hundreds of new, younger employees in recent years to keep pace with a prison population that jumped from 14,000 in 1987 to 19,500 today. Ryles speculated that the hiring push may account in part for the rise in the number of drug users among employees. The department now has more than 10,000 officers, up from 8,200 in 1987.

Most of those new officers are in the age group that has the highest percentage of drug users, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse household survey in 1988 based on 8,814 interviews. The survey reported that 18.7 percent of workers 18 to 25 years old said that they had used drugs within the past month as compared with 13 percent of the workers 26 to 34 years old. Only 2.4 percent of workers 35 or older said they had used drugs.

Prison systems hire more men than women -- about 70 percent of most prison work forces are men -- and the institute's survey reported that men are more likely to use drugs than women. For example, in the 26 to 34 age range, 15.4 percent of the men interviewed said they had used drugs within the past month as compared with 8.9 percent of the women.

The survey defined illicit drug use as ingestation of marijuana, hashish, inhalants, hallucinogens, cocaine, heroin, and nonmedical use of stimulants, sedatives, tranquilizers or analgesics (pain relievers).

Maryland, Virginia and the District hire most of their prison officers from the 25-34 age group. The typical applicant in the District is 31 years old and the typical Maryland applicant is 25.

Virginia prison officials have formulated a set of guidelines for a three-part drug-testing system that would include pre-employment screening, random testing of its 6,000-odd officers and mandatory testing for prison officers suspected of drug use, said Edward C. Morrow, deputy director of adult institutions.

There is no scheduled date for implementing such a testing program, Morrow said, because of the state's current budgetary crunch and unresolved legal issues. "There are some issues that need to be resolved, but we would certainly like to do it as soon as it is possible to do it," he said.