In the 10 years since the Virginia Department of Corrections was created on July 1, 1974, the number of inmates committed to it rose from 5,886 to 9,800 -- a 66.5 percent increase. During that period, the department built or developed eight new adult institutions, one new youth learning center, two reception-classification centers and one youthful-offender unit for young adults. Despite the challenge of this increasing number of inmates and facilities, the department is much better run today than it was 10 years ago.

No single fact illustrates this better than the dramatic decrease in the escape rate over the past decade. In FY 1974, that rate was 87.2 per 1,000 inmates; notwithstanding the publicity earlier this year over escapes from Mecklenburg Correctional Center, the escape rate in FY '84 was only 9.45 per 1,000.

Because the department has no organized public support, it is beleaguered in the struggle for appropriations from the General Assembly. Unlike the situation of higher educational institutions, there are no alumni associations cajoling the legislators to do better by its personnel and facilities. So the last thing the department needs is uninformed political rhetoric about its operations that demoralizes personnel and erodes what public support exists for its activities and goals.

In August, John W. Williams, chairman of the board of corrections, appointed a bipartisan committee to review the operation of Mecklenburg Correctional Center. Immediatly there were shots fired by J. Marshall Coleman, again seeking the Republican nomination for governor, that the committee was not the proper vehicle for such an inquiry.

How good a job it does will be determined when the committee renders its report -- but Coleman's objection was wide of the mark. As a former state attorney general, he should know that the Virginia code charges the board to "monitor the activities of the department and its effectiveness" and to "advise the governor, director (of corrections) and general assembly on matters relating to corrections." The unfortunate result of this unheralded interest of Coleman in the department's operations was the loss to the committee of Donald W. Huffman, a respected member of the board and chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, because of the untenable position in which Coleman had placed him.

Because of rash statements by Coleman and others, some people believe the Mecklenburg Center is understaffed. The facts are that the ratio of security personnel to inmates is one of the highest in the country. And despite assertions from the same sources that recent parole policies have been misguided, the proportion of parole revocations, compared with the total number of convicts on parole, has remained relatively stable. The percentage of parole failure in FY '81 was 16 percent; in FY '82, 17 percent; in FY '83, 14 percent; and in FY '84, 16 percent.

The department of corrections has made very real progress over the last several years:

The number of state felons diverted from facilities of the department under the Community Diversion Incentive Program rose to 700 by June 30, 1984, exceeding a goal of 517 that had been established by executive agreement.

Overtime pay for correctional officers was reduced by nearly 28 percent during the 1982-84 biennium, compared with the 1980-82 biennium.

Over the last two fiscal years, costs for inmates' meals in adult institutions were lowered by 24 cents a day.

Sales of products manufactured by correctional enterprises, now employing 827 inmates, increased 30 percent in FY '83 and 13 percent in FY '84.

The number of inmates in work release programs as of July 1, 1984, increased to 565 -- substantially exceeding the departments's goal for the biennium of 300.

Despite these successes, the department continues to face pressing problems that should be addressed in the next general assembly session. One is compensation for correctional officers. In a recent survey by the American Correctional Association, Virginia ranked 40th out of the 48 states surveyed (Tennessee and Utah not participating). It is not surpris- ing that under these circumstances 18.2 percent resigned in FY '84. Grievance procedures also need attention. Recent panels have reinstated employees whom the department attempted to fire for abusing inmates, embezzling an inmate's money, stealing state property and possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia. These determinations have adversely affected morale.

The challenge to the corrections system has grown in another way, too. The inmate population is becoming "harder core." From FY '81 to FY '83, for example, there was a 59.3 percent increase in inmates committed for crimes against the person; and a 9 percent increase in inmates committed with sentences of more than five years. Assaults on guards rose from 111 to 216. In FY '84, the number increased to 311, and it shows no sign of abating.

Progress depends on the general assembly. How these matters are handled will differentiate those elected representatives who are sincerely committed to advancing correctional programs from those who are content with scoring political points.