At the visitor's entrance to the District's Lorton Correctional Complex, a sign reads, "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."

The sentiment may seem strange for a facility that has seven prisons with nearly 6,100 inmates, ranging from maximum to minimum security. But it reflects the approach used by several of the administrators of the prison system who have been influenced by the Prison Fellowship ministries of Charles W. Colson.

When Colson, who served six months in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal, first visited Lorton in the 1970s, he was outraged at the crowded, dirty conditions and what he saw as a lack of concern for the prisoners by the staff. His criticism only got him into hot water with corrections officials at the time and didn't seem likely to produce much in the way of positive change.

But since that first visit, Colson has learned to tone down some of his rhetoric in dealing with corrections officials. And they, in turn, have come to respect the results of his ministry to more than 250,000 criminals, which seeks to give inmates new meaning and purpose while providing them with job training and employment opportunities.

On a visit three weeks ago to Lorton, Colson was welcomed by Walter B. Ridley, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, and Jacqueline Harvey, acting assistant administrator for programs.

Both have worked to turn the situation at Lorton around by developing a system known as "unit management," in which inmates at each prison in the complex develop a sense of group identity and responsibility for helping to manage their day-to-day affairs.

Colson also was accompanied on the visit by more than 100 Prison Fellowship volunteers from around the country who were in Washington for a weekend retreat. They were often the only white people to be seen wherever they went in the prison complex.

The reality of that division by color seemed to be at least tacitly acknowledged by Colson during a chapel service at the prison when he said, "Don't let anybody tell you that Christianity is a white man's religion. Jesus was born in northern Africa, and he was probably brown-skinned."

The experience of silver-haired suburban women dressed in colorful pant suits talking with black prison inmates might seem incongruous and even patronizing to some.

But the inmates seemed to appreciate the fact that the volunteers had come at all, some traveling across the country for the opportunity to try to bring encouragement to them.

Among the group was Annie Howard, of Louisville, who has been doing volunteer work with inmates of women's prisons, including some on death row, for 12 years.

Howard, whom Colson and his colleagues refer to as a "dynamo," brings a tough-love approach to her work.

In a lunchtime conversation at Lorton with other volunteers, Howard said she believes prisoners should be encouraged to save the money they earn working at the prisons rather than spending it on things like cigarettes, and then spend it on their families.

"I'd like to see them given a bit of responsibility, because we give, give, give, and they take, take, take," Howard said. "I think I need to learn, and they need to learn that you can have a relationship with somebody that's not just based on what you can get from them."

Howard and the other volunteers continue to go to prisons, ministering one-on-one with the inmates in everything from Bible study to providing Christmas gifts for their children.

They may not know inner-city poverty and violence firsthand, but neither are they content to live a "country-club church" type of Christianity.

Tammy Phillips, who directs volunteer programs for Prison Fellowship in the District, confirmed that for most of the inmates, the racial difference between them and the volunteers is not a negative factor.

"By and large, most of the men and women are so pleased that people have come at all," said Phillips. "People just come together in the body of Christ."

To be a Prison Fellowship volunteer, one must do more than agree to go to a prison once and talk with some inmates.

The organization has a 20-hour training program that includes orientation, discussion of issues that ex-inmates and their families face and Prison Fellowship programs that teach listening skills and ways to minister to inmates and their families. Long-range commitment is an important part of the programs. "We urge volunteers as much as possible to stick it out," Phillips said.

They don't do it to draw attention to themselves. As Colson said during the Lorton chapel service, it's "not because we're nice people and do good things. It's because we follow the one who is on that cross."