A Bureau of Prison program to allow the news media wider access to prisoners may actually intimidate reporters who receive letters from inmates, an Idaho newsman has charged.

William Hall, editorial page editor of the Lewiston Morning Tribune in Lewiston, Idaho, recently received a copy of a letter to Rep. Steven Symms (R-Idaho) from a prisoner in Danbury, Corin.

Under a nationwide Prisoners Mail Box program, inmates can send letters to members of Congress, the news media and other government officials without fear of them being read by prison authorities.

The letter contained nothing of consequence, but accompanying it was a mimeographed form letter from Danbury prison officials. That letter threatens prison sentences of up to 10 years if the person who receives the letter from the inmate sends or receives "contraband" or fails to report to prison officials any word of illegal activity by the inmate.

The form letter is sent only to the news media. Symms' office got the original letter from the inmate, its envelope rubber-stamped to say that it hadn't been opened.

The letter Hall got advises editors and reporters of opportunities to visit prisons. It also warns them not to pay prisoners for interviews, requests them to inform the prison of any names of other inmates or staff the writer included in his correspondence and asks that they return to prison officials any correspondence the inmate may have included to be forwarded to someone else.

But it was the concluding paragraph that most upset Hall. It states:

"Noncompliance with the above must result in a withdrawal of such access (to mail from inmates). All materials sent to or received from an inmate not authorized herein, or by bureau policy, shall constitute contraband within the meaning of U.S.C. 1791, which provides a sentence of up to 10 years. This includes the introduction into, or taking from, any correctional institution anything whatsoever contrary to any rule or regulation."

A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons said the letter was not designed to intimidate anyone, and criminal penalties extend only to those who do not report getting or sending contraband which is defined as "physical material, not written communication."

Clair Cripe, general counsel for the bureau, conceded that the letter could be read several different ways and could have an intimidating effect on reporters, although that is not the intent.

"We're trying to warn people that inmates are not beyond using the mail for illegal purposes," Cripe said. "In alerting people to that fact, it could have a chilling effect."

Hall charged that the letter was "deliberately unclear" about what a reporter could and couldn't do.

"If they weren't intending to intimidate editors," he asked, "why mention the 10-year sentence? At the very least, it's an insulting letter. It suggests that newspaper editors are capable of sending guns and files to prisoners."

A press spokesman for Norman Carlson, director fo the Bureau of Prisons, called Hall's charge "very unfair" and said it was the first complaint of that kind of the bureau has heard about. The spokesman said the bureau had instituted a new program to permit reporters to interview prisoners in all federal prisons, whose names they supply in advance. The form letter was drawn up at the same time, he said, to provide guidance to reporters.