Fifteen D.C. corrections officers found liable by a jury in the beating of inmates at the Lorton Correctional Complex will have to pay $745,500 of the damages out of their own pockets, a judge has ruled, and corrections officials have made that decision a sobering lesson to other prison staff members.

News of the Sept. 10 jury award, which totaled $774,500 and is to be divided among 10 current and former Lorton inmates, recently prompted Paul A. Quander, deputy director of corrections, to send a letter to all corrections employees seeking to end the "widespread misconception" that they cannot be held personally accountable for their conduct on the job.

A copy of the letter, dated Oct. 15, was recently mailed anonymously to The Washington Post.

When staff members use excessive force to control inmates, Quander's letter said, they "can and will be held personally responsible for any {fines} imposed . . . . Neither the Department of Corrections nor the District government will be held responsible for fines stemming from the assaultive actions of employees."

In a hearing late last month, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth refused to overturn the $774,500 award set by the jury, saying that he found it "absolutely justified."

Quander said that if the officers eventually are required to pay the punitive damages themselves, it probably would mean personal financial ruin. Most corrections officers are working-class men for whom a debt of $30,000 to $100,000 each would surpass their annual salaries.

Lamberth said he concluded after hearing the testimony that the officers set out to teach the inmates a lesson about prison discipline. "Now they have to pay the piper for that unconstitutional conduct," Lamberth said, according to a transcript of a Nov. 20 hearing.

The case stemmed from an Oct. 3, 1986, incident in which 10 inmates -- two of whom have since been released -- were being transferred from Lorton's Central facility to its Occoquan facility. The prisoners balked and created an uproar at Central before being loaded into vans for the short drive to Occoquan, although they soon quieted down, according to testimony.

At Occoquan, the inmates were met by officers who had braced themselves for a confrontation. The inmates testified that they were dragged off the vans, handcuffed and chained at the ankles by officers who kicked and cursed them. The guards had removed their name tags to hinder identification, inmates testified.

It is not unusual for people to win damages from the District in lawsuits, and even prisoners regularly collect damages based on allegations such as faulty medical care. These are compensatory damages, for a plaintiff's actual losses, such as medical expenses. But Claude Bailey, a spokesman for the D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office, said it is rare for city employees to be hit with punitive damages -- those intended to punish the defendant.

Bailey said that the inmates' case was one of only two of which he knows in which D.C. employees have been held personally accountable for on-the-job wrongdoing. The other was a sexual harassment case in D.C. Superior Court in which three officials of the D.C. Department of Administrative Services were assessed a total of $42,000 in punitive damages.

Under a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, municipalities are not liable for punitive damages assessed against employees, although they may decide on their own to pay them. Bailey said no decision has been made in either case about whether the District will pay the punitive damages. In the inmates' case, he said, the corporation counsel has not decided whether to appeal.

Dan Schember, an attorney for the inmates, said he and other attorneys are trying to determine each officer's assets in an effort to recover the damages.

In its verdict, the jury decided that the inmates were due $29,000 in compensatory damages for medical expenses, and pain and suffering. If that is upheld, it will be paid by the District.

The jury then assessed punitive damages for each of the 10 inmates against each of the 15 officers -- a total of 150 punitive damage awards totaling $745,500. Each officer was assessed an amount depending on the jury's assessment of his role.

Capt. Mario Randle, the ranking officer on the scene, was assessed the most, $100,000. Randle, now an assistant administrator at a department halfway house, declined to comment on the case yesterday.

Other officers could not be reached for comment. Six are still assigned to Occoquan; the others have retired or been reassigned.

At the Nov. 20 hearing, Lamberth excoriated the District and the corporation counsel for presenting witnesses "that no jury could believe."

Bailey said his office had no comment on Lamberth's statement.

The judge said he was "most disappointed" by the testimony of Randle, who had testified in a deposition before the trial that officers were expecting trouble from the inmates being transferred and had decided that they had three options: to lob tear gas at them, drag them out of the van and into their cells, or "beat the hell out of them."

"To have the ranking prison official say that a legitimate option . . . is to beat the hell out of the prisoners is something that shocks this court and, I am confident, shocked this jury and led to the award of the amount of punitive damages in this case," Lamberth said.

Lamberth said that he became convinced during the trial that all of the officers involved lied to protect each other.

"I sat here and hoped that the testimony of one officer would break ranks," the judge said. "In fact, I saw nothing but, 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,' guards from the whole collection of defendants in this case."