Lompoc, Calif.; Allenwood, Pa.; Safford, Ariz.; Fort Holabird, Md.

These are some of the names that are replacing such old-fashioned and ominous-sounding places as Alcatraz, Leavenworth and Sing Sing in prison talk. They are prisons that have been in recent news, mostly as a result of Watergate. They are the temporary homes of favored government witnesses, white-collar criminals, along with the Haldemans and Ehrlichmans who ended up serving time in what have become the suburbs of the U.S. prison system.

There are over 400 state and federal prisons in the United States. Most of them are centuries old, bleak and ugly, severely overcrowded, super-secure, without even minimal amenities. These fortresses are the places where most convicted prisoners are warehoused for long and fruitless periods. The poor ones, that is.

Most middle and upper class white-collar criminals, if they ever go to prison, end up in one of the relatively few minimum-security prisons. These places - no beds of roses, to be sure, as no correctional institutions really are - are comparatively open, spare but decent, short-term institutions. A serious question needs to be asked about the legitimacy of these prisons and about their future use.

The Watergate defendants have been able to enter what correctional sociologists call "new careers." They have made more money writing their prison-cell memoirs than they earned in government, and in the process these former law-and-order hawks have discovered prison reform. From Allenwood, a contrite and contemplative Jeb Stuart Magruder wrote to me in August 1974, commenting about an article I had written about sentencing criminals:

Prison for black or white does not accomplish much beyond punishment. Certainly those who would not be a threat to the community would benefit society to a much greater extent if their sentences followed the pattern you suggested [long terms of supervised community service].

One of the most noticeable tragedies in our present system is that it is the families who are many times the ones punished most severely. Since I've been at Allenwood, it has been appalling to me to find out how many broken families, families on welfare or families with serious domestic difficulties have resulted from the husband's incarceration.

Charles Colson, billed by his publishers as "Nixon's hatchet man" who "found spiritual rebirth," wrote about his personal reactions to the comparatively cushy prisons at Fort Holabird, Md., and Maxwell Air Base, Ala.:

When night fell the full weight of what it really means to be imprisoned settle dupon me. I felt closed in and fearfully alone even though surrounded by 40 other men. I had known loneliness before . . . It was not homesickness which weighed on my heart, but the barrenness all around me, the empty shells of men, the pervasive feeling of despair that, like the stale air, filled the dusty dimly lit dormitory.

Men lay on their bunks with glazed eyes, staring at nothing. There was some idle chatter, but . . . no laughter, no jokes nor good humor . . . I wrote. "I want to be reminded how great the need is for prisoners to establish their identity and dignity as human beings. My heart aches . . .

What these men are telling the American public is nothing new to the experts. But they have focused public attention on the needs of the prison system. The question is what we do with the information they are imparting.

It is easy to be cynical, to see this recent literature as trite musings of prima donnas whose brief grief was phony and who were permitted by a protective establishment to serve their sentences in "country clubs." Indeed, some critics have argued that all white-collar criminals should be sent to the worst prisons, to prove the even-handedness of the "system."

I disagree. If American prisons are grim, inhuman, wasteful places - and they are - the fewest people possible should be sent to them. Many convicts who routinely are sent to prisons could be dealt with better in the community. Some convicts must be segregated from society, however. The question is where and under what circumstances. If some convicts can be sent to decent, secure prisons - controlled and deprived environments, not nightmarish warrens - then all convicts who cannot be supervised in the community should be sent to such prisons. The way to end the hypocrisy in our treatment of white-collar criminals is to treat the rest of them like the best of them.