AND YOU THOUGHT that once someone was convicted and sent to jail it meant saying goodbye to drugs, pagers and means of doing business with the outside world. Now that may be true of some prison systems -- though, in truth, no correctional institution is drug-free. But the District's system is in a class by itself. It's an open question whether more drugs can be found inside the city's correctional facilities than at some of the city's more infamous open-air drug markets. The latest indictments of corrections officers bring that unpleasant thought to mind.

Last week, prosecutors indicted four guards at the privately run Correctional Treatment Facility, a D.C. jail annex, on charges of smuggling drugs, pagers and cash to prisoners in exchange for bribes offered by undercover FBI agents. Three of them were working at the facility when they allegedly took the bribes. The fourth, a former employee, allegedly served as a go-between. The Corrections Department brass would have you believe that the smuggling has nothing to do with them because the Correctional Treatment Facility is run by the Corrections Corp. of America, a private concern that operates about 60 prisons elsewhere in the nation. Don't buy it. The city pays the Nashville-based CCA about $20 million a year for handling the Corrections Treatment Facility, which, as far as we can tell, is not being run any better than when the city was operating prisons.

Not that the city's track record was any better. Who can forget:

* The random drug tests conducted a few years ago that found 9 percent of D.C. Corrections inmates had tested positive for illegal drugs -- a rate four times above the national average for state prison systems.

* The 76-year-old woman caught smuggling marijuana into Lorton for her grandson.

* The 3-year-old boy with marijuana in his pocket while visiting an inmate (the two women accompanying him were let go when prosecutors couldn't prove who had planted the drug).

* The smuggling of cocaine and prostitutes into Lorton and the filming of a pornographic video in the prison chapel.

* Keith Gaffney-Bey, who made between $250,000 and $750,000 a year operating a large-scale drug distribution cartel from his cell at Lorton.

All of the above occurred within the past six years and on the watches of two mayors, numerous D.C. Council members and the omnipresent financial control board. It matters not that Lorton is closed or that a number of inmates have been transferred out of the area. The ones left behind, and the officers guarding them, are still making names for themselves.

None of this is the least bit amusing. It is a disgrace. Last year, 10 corrections officers, including nine from CCA, were indicted on bribery charges stemming from a similar investigation. All 10 were convicted. But the corruption, nonetheless, goes on. What does that say about the competence and efficiency of the private firm that is pocketing millions of taxpayer dollars -- or about the agency that is supposed to be overseeing that operation? What does it say about a city government that apparently tolerates such a scandal?