Death keeps stealing the friends of the Rev. Joseph Ingle. He is the United Church of Christ minister whose life's work involves visiting the death rows of America's prisons. Since 1974, when he founded the Nashville-based Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, Ingle has been to every death row in the South. Eighty-seven of the 93 executions since the Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976 were of people in southern prisons.

Ingle knew most of them. No outsider has spent more time with the condemned, nor come to know them as personally nor worked as persistently to prevent their deaths.

Ingle tells of Morris Mason, ''a man-child with an IQ of 66'' and killed June 25, 1985, in Virginia for murdering an elderly woman. Mason had ''been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic by the state of Virginia, and if the state of Virginia says you're a paranoid schizophrenic then you are.'' In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute the mentally ill. ''Too bad Morris Mason wasn't around,'' Ingle says.

The 41-year-old graduate of New York's Union Theological Seminary has stories about other executed friends. He tells of Willie Watson, a black drifter who murdered a young woman in Louisiana while in a psychotic state induced by an overdose of drugs. On the night of July 23, 1987, Ingle, along with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), went to the Baton Rouge mansion of then-governor Edwin Edwards to plea for a stay of Watson's 12:01 a.m. execution.

With less than two hours remaining, the Supreme Court, with eight members, voted 4 to 4 to hold Watson's case until a companion Louisiana appeal was heard. ''The justices,'' Ingle recalled, ''had split on the merits of the case, but unlike baseball in which the tie goes to the base runner here the tie went against Willie Watson. . . . A divided court voted to accept the case but kill the petitioner.''

Edwards, hospitable and inviting Ingle and Conyers to spend the night in the mansion, temporarily stopped the execution with less than a minute remaining. He listened to Ingle explain the case. That formality out of the way, he phoned the prison and ordered the warden to get on with Watson's execution.

A few days ago Ingle visited Washington to rally the Congressional Black Caucus on behalf of another condemned Willie -- Willie Jasper Darden, on Florida's death row for 14 years for a 1973 murder. In late January, following protests by Amnesty International, Andrei Sakharov and others, as well as publicity generated in part by Ingle, the Supreme Court stayed Darden's scheduled Feb. 3 execution. It was the sixth reprieve for the inmate who has been on death row longer than any of the other 1,800 condemned prisoners.

Ingle has regularly visited Darden. ''I'm convinced he's innocent,'' Ingle says, citing inconsistencies in the trial, an inept court-appointed defense lawyer and affidavits of two people who were not called to testify in 1973 but who now swear that Darden was elsewhere at the time of the murder.

After speaking with the black caucus, Ingle spent an evening with students at the University of Maryland. None in the audience of 60 had ever met an advocate for death-row prisoners. Ingle, an amiable North Carolinian and ''just a white boy up from the South,'' traced his passion for criminal-justice reform to the 1971 prison uprising in Attica, N.Y. Studying at Union and living in East Harlem, he followed the events at Attica with amazement. ''Forty-three people died there,'' he told the students. ''Sixteen were hostages and 27 prisoners. All died at the hands of the state after Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent in armed police.''

Ingle soon began visiting prisons. His first was the Bronx House of Detention, where 43 inmates -- 42 of them black -- were caged. ''The first time I went there I said to myself, 'Oh, my God. I'm locked in here with these animals.' But that's what you're socialized to believe -- that they're somehow less than human.''

For his efforts to save lives and restore some honor to America's judicial system, Ingle was recently nominated for the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize by five members of the Swedish parliament. The nomination -- the Swedish politicians were a mix of liberals and conservatives -- reflects how much of the rest of the world opposes this barbaric American death rite. Sweden abolished executions in 1910. No country in the Western alliance, except the United States, kills its own citizens.

But executions are legal here. In eight years as Florida's governor, Bob Graham signed 153 death warrants and oversaw 16 deaths. Floridians sent him on to the U.S. Senate, and fellow governors once named him chairman of their committee for National Bible Week.

Until the inhumanity stops, Joseph Ingle will keep on. At 41, and with death rows packed, Ingle realizes that his life's work may still be in the early stages.

"No country in the Western alliance, except the United States, kills its own citizens."