About 1 a.m. the cell block fell quiet. Out of the dark a gentle alto voice from the tier below mine began to sing a gospel song, a humble and painful lament. When the song was done, there was applause and a hopeful silence. She sang again. If God is anywhere, He was in the cell block that night.

When I first came to jail for civil contempt in September 1986, I was told to expect women who would destroy me and a despicable institution. Instead, I found women who had had rough and difficult lives and an institution that does a very creditable job despite many obstacles. The guards have been unfailingly kind to me.

Aug. 28, 1987, was my third jailing, and it continues indefinitely. Before September 1986, knowing little about prison inmates,I "knew," like many Americans, thatthe solution to crime was stricter, longer, more punitive sentences. I believe now that I was quite wrong. Before you think you "know," come visit us. Or at least see what I see in the District of Columbia Detention Center.

My fellow inmates include women who are hard-working, conscientious, cheerful, kind and beautiful. Anger, distrust, despair and disillusionment are all too common, but there is also a desire and a frequent effort to be kind, friendly, generous and warm-hearted and to trust.

There is, of course, potential danger to me and to other inmates from an occasional maverick, but fellow inmates have consistently advised me, looked out for me,encouraged, helped and at times protected me. I submit that there is as much inher-ent human goodness in individuals hereon South 1 as in individuals in the "free world."

Why are they here? There are 80 cells on South 1. The inmates' charges range from nonpayment of a $280 traffic fine to prostitution to murder. Some were foolish, venal or reckless, but I have come to realize the force that sent many here began in childhood. A substantial number of woman prisoners talk to me about their past, perhaps because I am a doctor and they think that I might understand. I do. Of those who talk of their childhoods, there is an appallingly high number who suffered prolonged, severe sexual, physical and/or emotional mistreatment in early childhood.

For various reasons, these women had little or no protection, hope or therapy in those critical years of vulnerable innocence. Psychological research shows that a spectrum of undesirable traits -- lying, anger, mistrust, manipulation, self-destruction, prostitution, inability to learn in school and despair -- are among the results of severe childhood mistreatment. Such problems abound on South 1. It is a tribute to my fellow inmates that so much goodness still shines through.

But is jail helping them? Really, what is the purpose of jail? Punishment will not compel prisoners into "good" behavior, because it teaches them to treat others as they are treated -- punitively. The civilized, intelligent goal of prison is to help those who want to be helped -- I believe many, if not most, of my fellow inmates do. The goals set for them should be reasonable. A neglected painting is not restored in a day. For those who are dangerous, a quarantine from society is, perhaps, inevitable. Restoration and quarantine, however, can both be done with the dignity and respect to which prisoners are entitled as people and as American citizens.

Who is to do it? The new administrator, William H. Plaut, is clearly dedicated not only to running an efficient jail that the city can be proud of but also to helping the many unfortunate inmates in this institution. In barely two months, he has produced many changes, all for the better. Much more needs to be done. Most pressing, in my opinion, is making available individual and group psychotherapy for all inmates who are survivors of severe childhood abuse, to give them acceptance and self-respect and to defuse the inordinate anger inside them that is the result of their brutal childhood and is the cause of so much violent crime.

I sense, however, that the detention center will never receive the support it needs as long as voters, journalists and government officials think of those confined here as just criminals and not also as people. But they are. Those outside these walls need to feel the feelings of what being here is like and what the beings here are like, to hear the pain in the gentle alto voice from the tier below. -- Elizabeth Morgan, M.D. is in the D.C. Detention Center for civil contempt in a child custody case.