Everywhere in the prison you feel eyes on you like hands -- unexpectedly as you turn a corner, steadily tracking you across open ground from the doors and dark windows of dreary brick dormitories.

"When I first came here . . . I swore I'd never come in again," said Bill Badanes, a prison psychologist. "The inmates would do what is called . . .they'd eye you. They weren't allowed to talk to you, but they'd follow you with their eyes all the way. I was scared to death."

One hundred seventy-seven killers, 205 armed robbers and assaulters, 70 rapists and sex offenders, 342 robbers and burglars, 71 drug offenders, and assorted arsonists, forgers and vandals live in the District of Columbia's medium-security prison at Lorton, Va., 18 miles south of the city in lush hill country off Interstate 95.

The prison is a compressed and dangerous world, a war zone sealed off by 14-foot fences and plopped on Washington's rural edge. Seventy-six percent of the 1,305 inmates have been there before; 93 percent have been held before by D.C. authorities for criminal conduct, either in a youth institution, halfway house, jail or prison. Virtually all will get out some day.

Sixty-one percent committed violent crimes -- average for American prisons.

It costs $10,220 a year to keep a man there -- the cost of a year's tuition, room and board at an Ivy League college. While the District is spending $62 million on corrections this year, 429 men in the prison -- a third of its population -- are idle, supervised by one guard and not forced to work because that would require more money for staff than the city is prepared to pay.

This prison is unique. It is more than 99 percent black -- one of the highest percentages in the country-- because its inmates come from mostly black Washington. The dozen whites -- "just enough to make us an equal opportunity institution," jokes warden Salanda Whitfield --are said to be for the most part streetwise loners who live quietly. Rather than group together, they mingle with black inmates without racial harassment, according to the staff.

The prison is unusually open, with inmates living in 26 dormitories with only a few cells. "A man can move," says deputy warden Arthur F. Graves. "There's not really that caged atmosphere."

"You almost get to like it," says a rapist. "You hear people say, 'It's a real sweet camp.' "

A visitor spent two days in the prison recently, interviewing inmates and staff and touring much of the large "campus." The atmosphere was calm, but inmates, who loll around everywhere in groups, were watchful and edgy. The guards don't carry weapons and are vastly out-numbered; there is a feeling of a carefully balanced, tenuous truce.

A decade ago, Lorton was crowded and regimented; riots were common. Today it is a different institution -- more relaxed, more loosely organized, but still very much resembling a warehouse for human beings. This is a status report.

Badanes banters with an inmate in the prison yard. The psychologist has a goatee and big eyeglasses and is wearing a brown golf shirt with loud-checked pants. The inmate's nickname is Cool Breeze. He is wearing a floppy hat and a purple-and-white shirt hanging out over khaki trousers.

"He's a . . . dedicated crook," says Badanes.

Cool Breeze beams a rich grin. "That's right, I'm a crook."

"Jake, you're gonna live here forever . . . . I'm never gonna run outa business."

"I'm gonna see that you don't."

Cool Breeze is James F. Johnson, inmate number 119-202, 40 years old, a.k.a Jake, doing six to 30 years for narcotics possession, first degree burglary while armed, rape while armed, assault with a deadly weapon, and carrying a pistol without a license.

D.C. corrections chief Delbert Jackson, in his downtown office, lights a Kool.

"The claim of penologists that the penal system changes people is pure bull----," he says, "unless there is that inmate desire. What you come to is tantamount to warehousing. We keep them off the street for a considerable period of time. The majority will come out very rarely better than when they came in."

Conditions in the prison, Jackson says, are better now than when he was named warden in 1971.

"We had 1,800 down there --wall-to-wall people," he says. "We had double-bunking, people sleeping 12 inches apart. That is life-threatening. There were sometimes only 35 officers and we put most of them in the towers because we knew some of the inmates were going to hit the fence."

He puffs his cigarette.

"If you're asking me if I see any immediate solution, the answer is no," Jackson says. "I guess the saddest thing is, we are dealing for the most part with people without hope."

In a maximum-security cell above a reclining inmate on a cot is penciled a sentence of curious and sinister elegance: "All soldiers are aware of the 'Note Man.' He is dangerous."

David King Jr., 178-064, tall, gangling, 31, wears a drab Army field jacket with "Doc" stenciled over the pocket. While doing one to three years for unauthorized use of a vehicle, he is writing a book.

Although its working title is "The Life of Doc King," he cautions: "Just put David King, because a lot of people might not know me that way." Written in pencil on long yellow sheets of paper, it begins: Death City

On the 9th of September 1981 I was sent to Lorton prison in Lorton, Va. on the hill. The hill was open and every thing that took place was just like the streets, if you wanted anything you could buy it and I mean anything . . . .

My first day of arrival it was like entering the gates of Hell and those which was within were happy to see them from the out side that they knew coming in, like it were a home coming; I guess it was for the lifetimers that been here along time and seen these guys coming back time after time.

Life here is like a game of football, but you have scored a T-D for the other team . . . .

Dawn in the big yard: the dusty rust color of big brick dorms and brick streets. Splotches of dirt and stunted grass.

A yeasty smell on the damp air.

"Down here they call it 'Shoots; ' it's homemade brew," says Sgt. Donald Barron, a guard in a gray uniform. "They just ferment anything you can imagine, fruit, sugar, tomato puree . . . . "

He says contraband comes in with visitors: "Anything on 14th Street is here except the whores -- we got sissies instead."

Barron leads the way into Dormitory 15. The single enormous room is dark -- a warehouse, a cavern. Steel girders above, high windows. The men sleep in four rows of bunks stretching almost the full length of the room. At one end is a TV area, at the other, the bathroom.

Barron goes down the rows of snoring men to the bathroom and says proudly, with a wave of his flashlight: "Four urinals, seven commodes, four showers and 63 men in this dormitory. Used to have 160 in here in October, 1960, when I came."

At 6:15 a.m., the bare overhead lights come on. Some men get up and head for chow. Most wear blue denim prison pants, sports shirts and old jackets.

Barron: "If it's French toast or pancakes, they'll get up and roll for that."

Prison authorities say inmates crave these items because many may still be on narcotics or just coming off them inside the prison, and the sweets somehow soothe their systems.

Most inmates stay in bed through breakfast.

In the bright mess hall, men eat ham, oatmeal and French toast.

They pour enormous quantities of syrup on the French toast. They crowd a table where sugar is in two big metal containers with wire mesh over the top to make it hard to get. But the men work at it with big spoons until they get cupfuls, bowlfuls.

At 7:30, it is time for "The Count." Each inmate must be on his bed. Guards go down the rows counting. The tally sheets go to a central location, where they must equal the number of inmates on the books. There are 11 counts a day, 365 days a year.

"You gotta see skin when you count," says prison public relations man Leroy (Hunk) Anderson. But guards count some lumpy forms hidden under blankets.

Also at 7:30: The next guard shift meets in a squad room. They line up and receive assignments. A shakedown in Dormitory 23 is planned. Of 204 guards, 68 are white, 20 are women.

It's 7:45: The shakedown turns up two screwdrivers, two files, four keys, a quart of cooking oil and half of a pair of scissors fashioned into a "shank," or knife.

At 8:05, the count "clears:" the figures tally. Inmates go about their business: academic and vocational schools, anti-alcoholism training, prison industries, psychological analysis and "50 Squad," a general work force that, in fact, does nothing.

Barron and the visitor return to Dormitory 15.

From an inmate, a soft hiss: "How about a few dollars for helping with this article, hustler?"

The most popular program is Ike Johnson's cooking school: 174 applicants for 12 openings in the current class.

"We can turn out cooks," says Johnson, a heavyset man. "If a man has any initiative at all, he can become a chef." Johnson subjects his students to an iron discipline.

"If a man isn't here at 8:30 a.m. he's got a problem," Johnson says. "They'll knock you down because they run to my class . . . . I call 'em all 'Mister.' That is the beginning of respectability. If I can gain their respect, then I can teach 'em something."

There are five institutions on the 3,500-acre site acquired for the prison by the U.S. government in 1910. They are physically separate, with different administrations. The largest, the subject of this report, is the 1,305-inmate medium-security prison known as "The Hill." Nearby is the Maximum Facility, with 449 inmates; more than a mile away is the Minimum Facility, with 215, and two youth centers, with 525. The city keeps 1,425 prisoners in the federal prison system and 200 women in a prison in West Virginia.

Max lies behind towering, 20-foot brick walls and has a rated capacity of 404 inmates, 45 less than it contains. Its inmates, 95 percent of them black, are considered disciplinary problems or are in protective custody. Each has his own cell.

"It's very comfortable living," says chief counselor Paul E. Krull. "Some people have problems living in dorms. The older inmates prefer the structure in Max . The old criminal system structure is very rigid, and they like that."

Deputy Warden Graves walks the grounds, greeting inmates. He wears a gray, three-piece suit and is accompanied by Anderson. Inmate reactions vary: "Good afternoon, gentlemen" (crisp, correct). "Some help for me, please" (weary). "Don't mess up them $90 shoes" (slightly insubordinate).

Graves banters, lends an ear, says, "Come see me in my office." The tone is light, but the prison code says always be straight with inmates. If Graves invites someone to his office, he means it. If he says he will look into something, he will.

He rounds a corner and suddenly, to the right across an open space, a man is sprinting, his legs a blur beneath an upright torso, a big cardboard box on his shoulder held by upthrust arms. He is gone in an instant, lost in the world of dusty brick.

Graves stops, shakes his head, and says: "I wish I had a radio." But he concedes that the thief would have escaped anyway.

"That's what they're 'spose to be doing," says Anderson cheerfully. "It shows that the man's spirit isn't dead."

"This experience here, man, has been very traumatic for me," says Andre D. Martin, 197-585, doing 44 to 132 months for attempted robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and sodomy. " . . . The food is garbage. It is garbage, man. We don't even get good nutritious food any longer . . . . They profess to rehabilitate a man, yet they let a homosexual run around here dressed up like a woman."

In the cafeteria line at dinner, two men were dressed as women.

"If we had more whites in here, we'd get more programs," says Johnnie Ford, 193-864, doing 30 months to 10 years for armed robbery, assault with intent to commit robbery while armed, and assault with a dangerous weapon.

"There's no answer for the prison being 99 percent black . They ain't playing fair with the black man. They don't honor their rights," says Theodore Jackson, 121-180, doing seven to 22 years for armed robbery.

"Look at this, man, you go in the bathroom and what you smell is eternal odor," says Thomas W. Smith, 195-636, doing two to six years for attempted robbery, attempted petit larceny, and simple assault. "I can't sleep at night."

"We don't have an adequate law library . . . . They're telling me I got to do 15 years before I'm eligible for parole," says another.

"Conditions, as you can see, are very, very poor," says Darrell Loper, 181-128, doing eight to 24 months for second-degree burglary and attempted petit larceny. " Chief Justice Burger thinks this keeping people in prison is the thing to do to stop crime. That's c---. When I was out there, I lost my job, I quit . . . . When I tried to get another one, I couldn't . . . . The black male can't make it."

Another: "There's nothing to do down here. Just doin' time."

Five inmates have been murdered since 1978. The last guard killed was in 1974. These numbers are not bad for an American prison -- progress of sorts.

The last killing was several months ago. Two inmates stabbed another in a dorm.

Explains the head of the guard force, Maj. D.P. Decatur: "It doesn't take too much to get killed in here. If you owe me two packs of cigarettes and you don't pay me, that's reason enough for you to get killed in here."

There have been no riots in recent years. When an inmate's ring was stolen, his friends, members of a religious sect, recovered it.

Decatur: "They stormed a dorm and threw a fire barrel in there. They got the ring back. We used some gas and quelled the situation. In 15 minutes it was over."

In the early 1970s, there were 100 escapes a year. Today, escapes are few, but earlier this year two men scaled the prison's chain-link fence, got through the barbed wire on top, dropped, and ran into the woods while a guard in a tower 140 feet away blasted at them with a 12-gauge shotgun and missed. This in mid-afternoon.

Anderson: "It was a female guard. . . . I don't think she wanted to hit them ."

There are women guards in Max. One jokes with a group of inmates in an outdoor courtyard. They tower over her.

"These guys are not crazy," says Capt. G.R. White. "That female represents the law. If they do or say something wrong, she could be the cause for them being locked down. We have five females and they're all excellent officers. They perform all the same functions as the male officers."

In the Catholic chapel there is an extraordinary sculpture of Christ on the cross -- bleeding, face twisted in agony, spikes driven through the sinews of his wrists. It was done by a prisoner in 1960. Nearby is a statue of Mary with the inscription, "Mother of Christ the Prisoner, Pray for us."

The Catholic chaplain is Father Manning Moore, a frail, white-haired man with glasses who radiates warmth. In his view, "It's got to strike you as somewhat unjust" that the prison population is so black.

"The whole system is unjust," he says. "Incarceration itself is an evil in my thinking, and I came here because I just wanted to be on the side of those who were suffering."

As on the outside, there are prison fashions and fads. Inmates, guards, everybody smokes Kools because they are the "prison cigarette." At one time it was Pall Malls.

Warden Whitfield: "The whole notion now about rehabilitation is seriously questioned by the citizenry. I don't think anybody is really willing to invest the kind of funds that would make an impact . . . . Prison terms are getting longer . . . . What to do with the long-termers? For every prisoner job we have here, we have five or six guys. A lot are in. . . therapy. We keep a lot in an alcoholic education program. There are more people in school than ever. We've got 100 on the waiting list to go to school."

Walter Moore El is a tall, powerfully built man with flashing eyes and chiseled features. He speaks in a soft, thoughtful way that makes you want to listen carefully.

Moore El , 31, 176-124, is doing six to 18 years for rape. He originally was charged with kidnaping while armed, kidnaping, rape while armed, rape, armed robbery, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and obstructing justice. "They let me plea-bargain to rape ."

He went to prison after getting into trouble with drugs. In a meticulously hand-printed letter to the judge at his sentencing more than five years ago, Moore El wrote:

Your Honor, I realize the seriousness of this offense. I feel that I should pay this debt, which I most certainly owe to Society. I know it would be a great wrong to the people of this Country if I were to walk away unpunished . . . .

Your Honor, may I tell you a little about my life and my self. Before I go on let me say that I know that living hasn't been any easier for any one else and that life and living is hard for all of us Black and White alike . . . .

Your Honor, I am not a bad person nor am I a criminal. A few years ago I was introduced to narcotics and this has been the cause of my self destruction . . . .

Please put me somewhere that will have helped me to make a better person of my self . . . . I fear that should I go to a jail, I will become what I am not now. And that is a bad person with a cold, bad and bitter heart.

The judge ordered incarceration in "any other place other than Lorton," but Moore El was sent there anyway.

Now he has learned a trade(masonry), been reunited with his wife and converted to become a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America.

"One thing I'll say about Lorton, if you're not really sincere about coming here and doing your time and getting out, it will institutionalize you," he says.

"You can be here 10 years and if you don't want to work you don't have to. Look at how many are in their beds. If a man sleeps 'til 2 p.m. every day for five or six years, what chance has he got if he's going back to the community of getting up at 6? If he goes back , eventually he'll say, 'Damn, I wish I was back there in Lorton. You don't have to pay rent, don't have to buy your food, don't have to work . . . . ' "

Is Moore El rehabilitated?

"I've never asked myself that question," he replies. "I feel that I can live in society according to the laws of the government . . . . I have a means to support myself. I also have something I never had before: self-control."

The interview with Moore El was Sept. 21. Now he is in a Washington halfway house.

Major Decatur commands 205 guards paid from $13,157 to $50,112 a year, most of them at the lower end of the scale. He wears a white shirt and tie, with a gold badge, and has golden hair and mustache, a gold pen and gold watch. He speaks in a gruff Southern accent.

"This institution here for a number of reasons is probably the most difficult assignment I've ever had." he says. "We have all types of inmates. Some are just plain crazy, but we're compelled to house these people when the court doesn't send 'em to St. E's St. Elizabeth's Hospital . The average age of the inmate has been drastically reduced to 24 or 25. These characters are younger, more aggressive . . . . It takes adifferent type of correctional officer.

"Fifteen years ago everything was regimented . . . . The emphasis now. . . is to really involve the inmates' relatives, the community . . . . We have lots of volunteers . . . . "

Decatur says that 2,500 people enter the prison for family days twice a year. There are bands playing and entertainment for the children, he says, adding: "A lot of correctional people work without pay that day."

A special Olympics for handicapped children also is held in the prison. The inmates pair off with the youngsters.

"It's amazing how the inmates stick with that kid that day, make sure they get fed," Decatur says. "And the kids, man, they're thrilled to get in here. They don't want to leave their inmate."

As in all American prisons, the guards that Decatur commands are not armed, a safety precaution to prevent inmates from getting weapons. One guard, Capt. L.W. Dixon, says: "With 1,300 of 'em and with only 24 officers on duty , theoretically they could take over any time they wanted to just by sheer numbers."

He adds: "I don't think they could get that much unity."

Decatur: "No institution runs without the inmates supporting it."

Prison administrators say they don't condone conjugal visiting. But somehow people manage, when wives and girlfriends visit, to find a place. Father Moore: "There are children made in the chapel."

Overcrowding is a much-discussed problem. This prison is built to hold 1,162 and had 143 more than that on Sept. 21.

In Dormitory 15, the floor is marked with yellow paint to give each man 60 square feet of space --considered the minimum by experts.

"There's not much space between the beds; we're breathing on one another," says John M. Morris El, 173-861, doing 15 years to life for armed robbery and possession of a prohibited weapon.

James Lee Loyd , 39, is a counselor who evaluates prisoners for placement in prison programs. His office is warm and dark, with a lamp throwing soft light on a shag rug, drawn drapes, a radio playing soft music. Loyd wears a green lumberjack shirt and styled hair over his ears.

"Don't let the hairdo deceive you, because I'm extremely conservative both in my outlook on penology and in my personal life. I voted for Reagan," he says. Of the prisoners, he observes: "Most of 'em are just thugs, not sophisticated criminals, just your basic strong-arm thugs."

Loyd says that inmates often say to him in an ugly way, "What the f--- you want, calling me up here?" He is paid $25,966 a year to handle 113 cases. In only a dozen is there any hope.

"It gives it the only little purpose the job has," he says. "There are certain guys you can spot -- they're very salvageable, but very vulnerable." For example: an inmate who killed his wife's lover, but was otherwise law-abiding and is terrified to be in prison.

"Sometimes you just try to keep people from going under here, give them someplace they can come, shut the door and talk," Loyd says. " You try to keep them from going off the deep end, committing suicide or surrendering to the criminal code."