New York's often unconventional governor, Hugh Carey, has given a new twist to the debate over crime control, which dominates his reelection campaign, by choosing the almost always unconventional Richard Hongisto to head New York's prisons.

Hongisto, who won national praise for his unorthodox and unusually humane approach to San Francisco's jails, which he ran for six years, would take over a crowded prison system that became a symbol of the nation's penal ills with the bloody 1971 riot at Attica State Prison.

With a reputation as a liberal, whose political support in black and other minority communities has always been strong, Hongisto arrives in the midst of Carey's tough relection battle, in which Republicans accuse him of not being tough enough on criminals - largely because he, like Hongisto, opposes the death peantly.

"I don't intend to turn into an overnight conservative," Hongisto said in a telephone interview. However his views on crime are not based on a liberal philosophy, he said, but on research and common sense.

Carey said he had ways to keep Hongisto on the job with or without submitting the appointement to the Republican controlled Senate for confirmation.

Hongisto comes to Albany from being fired as Cleveland's police by Mayor Dennis Kucinich, who had once hailed him as the best law enforcement officer in the United States.

Kucinich hired Hongisto in part to win support in the black community. Some Cleveland officials claim the police chief was so successful in his 99 days that the mayor became jealous of his subordinate's popularity.

Although Hongisto shattered Cleveland tradition by stating publicly that there is racism and brutality on the police force, he later won widespread support among policemen by being accessible and listening to their complaints.

In the different political atmosphere of Albany, Hongisto said, "I'll state my opinions as I always have, if anyone chooses to ask me."

Hongisto was elected sheriff, the head ofSan Francisco's jails, coincidentally, two months after the Attica riot, in which 42 died. He immediately replaced the county seal in his badge with the antiwar movement's peace symbol. He assailed other law officers for "Vietnamizing" crime control.

"How in the hell do more tanks, helicopters, tactical squads an spy systems get rid of ghettos?" he said. "As long as we have a society that ghettos people through poverty and racism we are going to have a crime problem."

He stressed yesterday that economic problems more than racial discrimination are the root problems of crime. "Just as wealth is transmitted from generation to generation, so is poverty," he said.

Hongisto has always kept himself in the public eye. With a flair for public relations.

With a flair for public relations, Hongisto has always kept himself in the public eye. He went to jail for five days (the fourth American sheriff to serve time while in office, by his count) for contempt of court when he refused to evict some elderly Asians who had not paid their rent.

He told reporters that he'd only been in jail once before - voluntarily - in Norristown, Pa., to see what jail was like.

"I didn't think anyone would know me in Norristown, but a transvestite hustler out of the San Francisco tenderloin was there and he recognized me," Hongisto said.

Hongisto is a strong supporter of gay rights, and once flew to Miami to combat Anita Bryant's campaign there.

In San Francisco he had a staff of about 350 and six jails. New York state's Corrections Department has more than 11,500 employees and 32 facilities.

In San Francisco he doubled his budget to $8 million. New York has a $256 million budget.