A prison work release center that opened 18 months ago to ease crowding at Prince William County's main jail may be forced to close because of a shortage of inmates, the jail superintendent said.

The center, which operates out of the Manassas Iron Building, housed an average of 11 inmates last month. It was designed for 75 inmates, said Richard Kiekbusch, superintendent of the Prince William/Manassas Adult Detention Center.

Kiekbusch said the center houses inmates charged with misdemeanors that do not involve violence or sex. Eligible inmates can have no history of violence or sex crimes. Inmates convicted of felonies who have not been sentenced qualify, but they are no longer eligible after formal sentencing.

Inmates at the work release center work in the community by day and return to the facility at night. They pay $10 each day they work, which goes toward their care, and they are closely supervised by county corrections staff, Kiekbusch said.

In recent months the center's population has gone from a high of 52 to 11 last month as inmates suitable for the program have been incorporated into other alternative sentencing programs, such as a diversion program for minor offenders.

Jail officials also have had trouble placing inmates in the facility because of restrictions in an agreement the county signed with the city of Manassas governing the kind of inmate who can be placed there, Kiekbusch said.

Under the agreement, no prisoners sentenced to state prison are eligible for work release, regardless of whether they committed a nonviolent or sexual crime. That policy, Kiekbusch said, has been in existence since 1982 and was included in the agreement involving the Iron Building not because of concerns about public safety, but because of the red tape ivolved in getting state prisoners into work release. When the population began to fall, Kiekbusch said, he approached the Manassas City Council and asked for more latitude in deciding which inmates should be eligible for the program. The council turned him down, he said.

"I approached the City Council in February 1990 and asked them to permit us to delete that prohibition and allow us to put state prisoners in there who meet other criteria," he said. "We made a reasonable plea, and I would have thought it would have been reasonable for them to answer us affirmatively."

Manassas Vice Mayor John Payne said the council was hesitant in February to change the agreement without hearing from the public. Several public hearings had been held before the work release center was allowed to open, he said.

"We felt it was critical that if it became neccessary that the center be used for {inmates} other than it had been scheduled for, it should go back to the public before any changes were made."

Manassas City Manager John Cartright said a jail board, which was formed last year to suggest ways to reduce the Adult Detention Center's population, has expressed concern to Prince William County and Manassas officials regarding use of the work release program as an alternative to incarcerating nonviolent offenders.

"We are holding talks now between the county and the city on the staff level" on the work release program, he said. "We will make recommendations to the county board and city council in a couple of months."

Cartright said the work release center, which is 10 blocks from the Adult Detention Center, originally drew opposition from residents. Because of residents' concerns, the city put stringent regulations on its operations. He said the center has established a perfect record, so it's timely that the agreement should be looked at again at this time.

Bob Harvey, former chairman of the now-defunct Jail Expansion Committee, which was formed after jail officials were ordered to ease crowding in the wake of a lawsuit from an inmate, said the work release program was adopted as a means of fulfilling the court mandate.

The work release center is especially needed now because construction of a new jail has been pushed back two years, from 1993 to 1995, because of budget constraints and because the prison population has stabilized.

"I think the city and county should sit down and take a look at the current criteria for placement in work release and see if there isn't some way in which more people could be moved in by reevaluating the requirements on a case-by-case basis," Harvey said.