IT'S ONE THING to have inmates at Lorton paying their debts to society -- but when it's the other way around, look out for flying bureaucrats. As a story in Thursday's Metro section revealed, authorities don't look kindly on the hiring of inmates by a private firm to do federal work, even it's for peanuts -- or, more specifially, for cigarettes and sodas. And when the employer switches the currency to sardines and cookies, as a private construction company apparently did in the instance detailed, that's a federal case to be investigated.

It all began simply enough. A private construction firm was on the prison grounds turning an old furniture repair shop into a cellblock, and a corrections officer persuaded the foremen to supplement the firm's regular staff with a work crew of inmates who would receive cigarettes and sodas in lieu of cash. It would mean a little something to do while on location, and absenteeism, presumably, would be no problem. But after a few weeks, the company started paying in a softer currency: cookies, sardines and various snacks. That prompted the inmate crew to walk off, if not out.

But little did anyone realize what a glorious set of investigations would ensue. Enter the D.C. Department of Corrections, the D.C. Public Works Department and the U.S. Department of Labor -- which now alleges that the construction company violated labor laws and owes the inmates (who, one assumes, violated other laws earlier) more than 23,000 real green dollars in back pay.

There's more, and it's no small matter of sardines, either: the inmates have informed the city that they intend to sue for $2 million for violation of U.S. labor laws. In turn, an attorney for the construction firm contends that the company was "pressured into cooperating with the program by the Department of Corrections" and that if anybody owes the inmates, it's the city for doing that. But for the time being, the city is withholding payment of more than $23,000 to the construction company -- the amount allegedly owed the inmates -- pending a review by an administrative law judge at the Department of Labor's Philadelphia office.

So much for ad hoc rehabilitation. As usual, the lawyers win.