Running prisons is terribly hard. Ask anyone in America who knows. It's never been more difficult. Consider recent experiences in Virginia:

Budgetary considerations have brought about dramatic cuts in personnel -- 543 in the last three years alone -- while during the same period, overall commitments of criminals to the prisons have increased 12 percent; the number of violent offenders is up 59 percent.

Guards' salaries were frozen for the past two years, and remain among the lowest in America.

The tensions resulting from a combination of overcrowding and understaffing have led to ill-considered early releases. Paroles were up 44 percent last year.

Recidivism shot up 238 percent during the past three years as more bad risks were released onto the streets.

Last year's court settlement over conditions at Mecklenburg prison, although well- intentioned, required new programs to be initiated at the same time that fewer guards were available to oversee them. In the eyes of many, the terms of that agreement compromised security.

The result has been trouble. The staff at the maximum security facility in Mecklenburg, with more programs to administer and fewer guards to go around, has been confronted with one dangerous episode after another. On May 31, the largest death row breakout in U.S. history occurred. On July 12, two riots broke out there. The most recent siege of the facility was on Aug. 4, when nine hostages were taken. A dozen or more guards already have been beaten and stabbed. The Mecklenburg facility remains demoralized and understaffed; conditions there, as reported by consultants in July, are still unsafe and, at times, unmanageable.

Elsewhere in this state, dangerous prisoners have escaped from custody, and hardened criminals have been paroled at an excessive rate. For example, one parolee released over the objections of his parole officer was indicted this month in a double capital murder.

Why?

For one thing, prisons have no natural constituency. As a result, a serious information gap exists. On most subjects, legislators have many sources of intelligence. The views of the secretary of education, for example, can be weighed against those of teachers, parents and the PTA. But when the secretary of public safety presents a budget, there is little basis for determining its adequacy. Unlike retarded children, highway builders and public schools, the corrections program lacks advocates to lobby for more and better programs and to evaluate what the executive is proposing.

And there is skepticism. Many criminal justice reforms haven't worked. Theories of punishment have shifted dramatically, and every new idea has seemed to fall: indeterminate sentencing, rehabilitation, juvenile justice improvements -- all have been found wanting. The public seems to have concluded that there are some very bad people who likely will remain that way and that the states have little ability to affect them.

Yet it's not enough to say that the state is a limited institution and that the perfection of human nature is beyond its capabilities. There are some concrete steps that can be taken, even without additional expenditures.

First, there is no expense involved in making prison policies clear. In the aftermath of the court settlement at Mecklenburg, conditions went from maximum security to medium security for all practical purposes. After the breakout, a tough line was taken again, and after the subsequent hostage-taking, direction seemed to shift yet again. Such fits and starts are destructive of good order. As one inmate wrote us, "No prison can work without cooperation from the prisoners."

Second, security can be tightened by altering housing patterns at the prisons. For example, rather than dispersing the worst criminals into all five Mecklenburg buildings, which is what created the explosive environment we've seen this summer, all the tough cases could be concentrated in one or two buildings and then managed on a very disciplined basis. The rest of the prison could be run by guards assisted by the general population of prisoners. The penitentiary at Richmond has such a program, and it works.

But we also should be willing to spend money. Top management is the key, and there has been little stability at the top in Virginia. Two nationally recognized corrections directors have left in the last three years. The last one left after a budget dispute over a lack of funds requested by the secretary of public safety (he has since been widely praised for his work in straightening out the New Mexico system and is now spearheading prison reform in Texas). Someone like him, with solid credibility and experience, could help point the way if he were given the financing and political backing.

More guards are essential. Hazardous duty pay is appropriate for some guards, but all clearly deserve a raise and, in view of the recently announced state surplus, we can afford it.

Adequate spending for prisons, although never popular, is absolutely essential. Some things have to be insulated from budget cuts.

Maintaining our roads, creating excellence in our schools, promoting economic development -- all are important and should be financed. But without a penal system that ensures security and punishes wrongdoers, they come to naught. If we fail to do a good job teaching students, we pay the price 20 years later. If we fail to create an environment attractive to business, we discover 10 years later that our industry is moving elsewhere. But the Achilles heel of any state administration is its prisons. Today's breakout is a direct result of yesterday's neglect. Of all of government's tasks, the most basic is to protect its citizens against violence.