The District of Columbia paid more than $200,000 in federal job-training funds last year to 27 convicted felons at Lorton Reformatory, including one who earned $9,838 as a plumber but cannot be released from prison before the year 2003.

Three of the workers were each paid $11,066 in federal funds to work as laborer-warehousemen at Lorton, the city's prison complex in southern Fairfax County. Other prisoners were paid to work as clerks, cartographers, trade helpers, warehousemen and as a dairy janitor.

Although the District did not increase the $2 it collects daily for room and board from employed prisoners, all of the workers in the federal job program at Lorton received the same 5 1/2 percent cost-of-living wage increase granted those outside. They also earned paid vacation time.

Details of the program were revealed by Rep. John J. Cavanaugh (D-Neb.) after a seven-month inquiry sparked by a complaint by a constituent in Omaha.

Cavanaugh's disclosures come at a time when the federal program that pays for the Lorton jobs under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act that created it, has come under intense congressional and public scrutiny as a result of reports of waste and mismanagement.

Authorized to spend $3 billion this year on public service employment, the CETA program was designed mainly to hire and train disadvantage people to enter the job market.

Paying prisoners to do tasks while in jail distorts that goal when so many young people on the outside are jobless, Cavanaugh contended.

According to official city statistics, at least 25,000 unemployed people are actively seeking work in the city, while uncounted thousands of others, have given up a job quest.

Delbert C. Jackson, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, which operates Lorton, defended the prison job program.

"This is the kind of program we must have if we are to prepare a man to come back into society with a marketable skill and a proper attitude," Jackson said.

While CETA pay for prisoners is permitted by law, Cavanaugh charged that the District violated regulations that participants must be eligible for release "within a reasonable time."

Among those on the Lorton CETA payroll, Cavanaugh said, were prisoners not eligible for release before 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991 and 2003.

Cavanaugh said the U.S. Department of Labor informed him the city had 174 CETA positions in its prison program in March. Jackson said, however, that the total on the payroll never topped 70, including those in halfway houses and on work-release programs.

D.C. government spokesmen agreed that there had been abuses in the Lorton CETA program, and said they were inherited by Mayor Marion Barry when he took office in January, succeeding Walter E. Washington.

Matthew F. Shannon, acting director of the .D. Department of Labor, which administers CETA locally, said the city adopted new rules in March restricting CETA prison jobs to those eligible for parole or release within 18 months. Prisoners who did not meet that standard are now off the payroll, he said.

Shannon said the reforms were a direct result of Rep. Cavanaugh's inquiry.

A spokesman for D.C. city administrator Elijah B. Rogers said the pay for all Lorton CETA jobs has been reduced to $6,561 a year, the same as the earnings of a beginning civilian employe at the city's lowest civil service grade, GS-1.

D.C. participation in CETA came under fire last year when a U.S. Department of Labor investigation forced an end to the use of CETA workers on the City Council staff because of findings of illegal patronage and administrative lapses.

In one instance, it was found that the wife of a prominent dentist who was the mayoral campaign treasurer for then-council chairman Sterling Tucker had qualified for a CETA job because she had been unemployed for a month.

A week ago, Mayor Barry asked the Labor Department not to require the city to reimburse the U.S. Treasury for several hundred thousand dollars in CETA funds paid to 81 workers found to be improperly hired or assigned.

As in the City Council case, Rep. Cavanaugh has asked U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall to recover the entire $200,000 paid by the District to the Lorton inmates, according to a copyrighted dispatch published today in the Omaha World-Herald. He also asked that Marshall end all CETA pay to prisoners anywhere in the nation.

". . . The taxpayers are suffering a double rip-off by paying $10,000 salaries" in addition to the $9,800 it costs to house and feed each prisoner at Lorton, Cavanaugh said.

He said he would introduce a bill in Congress on Monday seeking to outlaw such payments to prisoners.

Cavanaugh began his inquiry when a constituent sent him a clipping of a news story published last Sept. 3 in The Washington Post.

The story recounted that Dexter Anton Forbes, a self-educated "jailhouse lawyer" serving a maximum sentence of 54 years for armed assault, had lost an attempt in court to have his conviction overturned. The story mentioned that Forbes was being paid $8,900 a year-later increased to $9,391-in CETA funds for working as a library technician at the prison.

With a prison sentence of that length, Cavanaugh said Forbes cannot be paroled until 1991.

Jackson, the corrections director, said he agreed that paying CETA funds to such long-term prisoners as Forbes and the plumber who is serving a sentence until 2003 "did exceed the bounds of reasonableness-no question about that."

But, he said, CETA "by design and by intent is a very useful training program that accomplishes more than a single purpose, providing training in skills that need to be honed."

An aide to Cavanaugh discounted this. "What kind of skill is needed to be dairy janitor, and where in Washington would one get such a job?" the aide asked.

Jackson also said funds from the CETA payments are helping support prisoners' families. "If we can take a man's family off welfare, we are saving the city money," he said.

However, in a letter to Cavanaugh last February, Jackson said, "It is not possible for us to tell whether the money which Mr. Forbes earned does in fact go to his family. The most we can say is that the majority of the money he has earned has gone into his savings account."

Under Corrections Department rules, the CETA pay is reposited to each prisoner's bank account or sent to his family, depending upon whatever arrangements are made. Money is the bank cannot be used by a prisoner as long as he remains in Lorton, but may be withdrawn upon his release from jail. The income is taxable.

Jackson said it was the D.C. Department of Labor, not the Department of Corrections, that officially certified the long-term prisoners as eligible for CETA jobs, although the latter recommended candidates. Each prisoner was interviewed by labor department personnel before going on the payroll, Jackson said.

In February, Thomas A. Wilkins, who has since been replaced was acting director of the D.C. Department of Labor, was asked to respond to questions asked by Cavanaugh.

Wilkins sent a memorandum to R. C. DeMarco, then the acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Labor, saying, "There are several alternatives to replying to . . . Cavanaugh's letter."

One approach, Wilkins said, would be to tell Cavanaugh that prisons "should replicate the larger society by presenting the same opportunities for successes and failures."

Another might be to describe the federal regulations that permit prisoners to be put on the CETA rolls.

A third approach suggested by Wilkins would be to tell the member of Congress that CETA sponsors "are mandated to remove all artificial barriers to employment. Far too frequently to be attributed to chance, one's having been incarcerated is the only barrier to employment . . ." So having a job in prison might help an ex-convict get a job outside, Wilkins observed.

Instead of picking one of the three explanations, DeMarco sent Wilkins' full memo along to Cavanaugh.