During a recent visit to a drug rehabilitation program inside the District's Lorton Correctional Complex, I asked a group of inmates seated before me what they thought should happen to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

Fingers pointed quickly to an empty seat among them.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson agreed that jail time was in order, and sentenced Barry to six months in prison for possessing cocaine.

To some, slammer time seemed shocking and unfair. But why should Barry's plight shock any more than the fact that a veritable city of black men has been sent to Lorton by Barry and his administration's war on drugs -- in some cases for crimes far less serious than his own?

According to the rules of preferential treatment for high-profile offenders, which Barry has enjoyed from the day of his arrest last January, the mayor probably will end up at a federal prison camp, such as those in Allenwood, Pa., or Petersburg, Va., both of which are known as country clubs.

I say send him to Lorton. If Barry was half the man that he portrays himself to be, he'd volunteer to spend his six months living shoulder-to- shoulder with those for whom he claims to have such a great affinity: the downtrodden, dispossessed and despised.

False idol worship by many District residents may prevent them from seeing the benefits in this. Indeed, by erroneously setting Barry up as someone special when it comes to drug addiction, they made it easier for Judge Jackson to do the same.

"His prominence inspired others to emulate him and to behave as they believed he did," the judge said in sentencing Barry. Such a statement showed a profound misunderstanding of the drug culture in Washington. Pain, not prominence, inspires the search for drugs -- which, upon consumption, force people to behave the way they do.

In the final analysis, Barry's title as mayor is not nearly as important as the fact that he is just a garden-variety alcoholic and drug addict who lost the cocaine-users' crap shoot and ended up with a prison sentence.

On the bright side, he could have ended up dead.

Prison is not the worst price he could pay. And there would be a lot of support and sympathy for him at Lorton among people who are gratefully aware of that fact.

The D.C. Department of Corrections, under the leadership of Walter B. Ridley, has established two excellent substance abuse programs. Both hold great promise for helping Barry make the most of his time behind bars.

For now, as he awaits the results of an appeal of his conviction, Barry would do well to ask himself just how can he best repair the damage to himself, and eventually to this city. Pouting and playing Ping-Pong in Pennsylvania for six months would do nothing. But how about organizing a 1990 version of Pride Inc. -- a self-help organization started by Barry in 1968 -- at Lorton's Central Facility? That would be radical.

Here is a golden opportunity for him to become more sensitive to the needs of his fellow man as well as his own.

On both counts, Barry requires more help than he realizes.

During an interview with Barbara Walters on the television show "20/20" Friday night, Barry showed that he still has serious problems with candor, making statements about his drug use that are contradicted by a probation officer's report.

Although he vowed after returning from two substance abuse treatment programs earlier this year that recovery and family would come first in his life, Barry has been running a nonstop, sun-up-to-midnight political campaign to save his face, rather than his butt.

Despite claims of being more sensitive to the plight of drug addicts, Barry has refused to release funds to establish a house for pregnant drug abusers -- even as three crack babies die every four days in this city.

Barry's reasoning: The location of the house could cost him votes in the Nov. 6 election.

Barry obviously needs time to think. And six months is not that long. Moreover, his return from Lorton would no doubt serve as a beacon of hope for those thousands upon thousands of ex-offenders struggling to reenter this society.

The forgotten men and women currently under the supervision of the D.C. Department of Corrections represent one of the great untapped human resources in this city. Many of them are not bad people, but -- like Marion Barry himself -- are admittedly sick people trying to get better.

To be sure, there are places other than prison to get well. But as mayor, Barry has done precious little to establish such places. Perhaps when he gets out of prison, he will understand the need to do more.