Stop building prisons and set most of the prisoners free, says Charles W. Colson, the ex-Water-gate felon who wrote some of Richard Nixon's tough law-and-order speeches.

Colson, 50, conservative ex-Marine captain, ex-millionaire lawyer, ex-presidential aide and ex-convict, has become a top figure in the national prison reform movement. He even gets good reviews from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"He's doing great things," said Al Bronstein, head of the ACLU's prison reform project. "Everything he's saying about prisons and bad conditions and alternatives to incarceration is almost exactly what we're saying. That's important because Colson is reaching a conservative audience that we can't reach."

Colson heads Prison Fellowship, an evangelical organization that he says grew out of his spiritual anguish after Watergate and his seven months in federal institutions. He was convicted of obstructing justice in the case of Daniel Ellsberg, who had challenged the government by releasing the Pentagon Papers.

Now, backed by a staff of 100 with a $3 million annual budget, all from donations, and a nationwide army of 8,000 volunteers, Colson visits more than 50 prisons annually to give inspirational speeches to the inmates and confer with authorities on improving conditions.

"Four years ago he was a disgraced criminal," said Emil M. Aun, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. "Now he's riding a wave."

That wave is gaining momentum as the crisis of America's prisons claims increasing public attention. With 329,000 people locked up in state and federal institutions, many prisons are overcrowded. Some 1,200 more people are being sent into American prisons each month than are being released.

The crunch for the taxpayer comes in the enormous cost of incarceration -- up to $17,000 per year per inmate. With 28 states and the District of Columbia under court orders to improve prison or jail conditions, officials must either build expensive new capacity or keep more inmates in community programs, which are usually less expensive but riskier and more controversial.

For these and spiritual reasons, Colson argues that it is necessary to "radically change the criminal justice system in the U.S . . . . The whole idea of building new prisons is a bureaucratic ripoff. It's a big public works boondoggle . . . . We're talking about putting money into human beings instead of bricks and mortar."

Fear of imprisonment, he says, doesn't prevent crimes. "If prisons stop crime, how come we've got so much crime? . . . . Fear doesn't teach you not to do something. It scares you into doing it more carefully." His case-in-point: adultery.

The answer, Colson argues, is to keep nonviolent offenders in community programs. "There isn't just one option of building more prisons," he says. "Take the nonviolent guy out into a punishment program outside the prison -- restitution for victims of crime , community service, work release, or weekend incarceration, which the Dutch have used with great effectiveness."

Colson says 53 percent of those now in prison are nonviolent and can be kept in the community without danger. American Correctional Association officials say the figure is probably lower -- 30 or 40 percent.

The problem with this approach, Colson acknowledges, is that doing it effectively requires the wholehearted support of the community, which often as not wants to lock up criminals and forget about them.

Colson's efforts are taken seriously by corrections professionals. "A sincere, dedicated religious volunteer," said Salanda Whitfield, warden of Lorton Reformatory. "There was a great deal of suspicion originally," said Tony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association, a professional organization. "We see so many people born again after prison but then it dies off after the first year. This didn't happen to Chuck . . . . I think he's for real."

But Travisono doesn't like the tone of Colson's attacks on prison officials. "He'll say, 'This is the worst prison I've ever been in . . . . ' All he does is exacerbate the problems when he uses those words . . . . If he would just stop building on other people's problems and making it look like God sent him personally to save the world, I'd rest more easily."

William Brennan, Travisono's assistant, added that many professionals "feel uncomfortable with his views on religious salvation . . . . He's a powerful, charismatic figure. Maybe there's still some of the politician in him."

The rise of Prison Fellowship comes at a time of religious revival in the prisons -- as in the country as a whole. In an institution such as Lorton, for example, there are a dozen different religious groups and it is common for inmates to use their born-again fervor as an argument for early parole.

Colson's thousands of volunteers -- many of them ordained ministers -- conduct one-week seminars in the prisons and develop spiritual relationships with inmates. They also work with the often-devastated families of inmates, and help with jobs and readjustment after release.

The organization has taken a total of 650 prisoners from behind walls for one-week prayer and study seminars here in Washington. A recent 12-member seminar met with Norman Carlson, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. senators and other officials.

"I'm totally supportive of Prison Fellowship," Carlson said. "It's not a panacea, but for many inmates it has been a real positive experience."

More than 400 of the inmates who participated in these Washington seminars are now out, and only five have so far have committed new crimes or otherwise violated parole, according to Prison Fellowship records.

In a recent -- and typical -- visit to one of the roughest prisons in America, the New Mexico state penitentiary at Santa Fe, Colson, in shirtsleeves and with his familiar pipe, furrowed brow and worried look, spoke to an audience of 100 inmates.

"Six years ago I did a little time -- not bad time, and not in a place like this," he began, his voice booming. "I had been one of the men in Watergate. I was close to the president. After that I began Prison Fellowship to try to find something to turn your lives around. We on the PF staff are mostly ex-convicts, sinners. The rest of us are guys who love Christ . . . .

"I started out in life without a thing . . . . I got to the top, I was in the office next to the president. After I got all those things, I didn't have the things I wanted . . . . I've given my life to the person of Jesus Christ. The man I follow came from the soil, from the common people . . . . The Jesus I follow is He who came among the poor and the prisoners and He set the prisoners free. He was a prisoner. Judas was a snitch . . . .

"I'm not the kind of Christian who drives to church with his kids in a station wagon. Jesus Christ was a radical. He cared for guys like us. He marched up the hill, they strip-searched Him. They hung Him on a cross . . . .

"I've never stopped being a convict at heart . . . . We'll help you guys . . . . If there is ever any change in a prison it will be because of Christ. God bless you, and we're here to help."

The speech was well received, but in a question period with Colson the inmates complained it is difficult to live as a Christian in prison. "We've seen death in this pen," said one. "I'm a Christian," said another. "We're in here for doing wrong. These prison officials are supposed to lead us, but they're not doing it. They're leading us back into the dark."

Colson listened carefully, then reassured and advised the men: "This is a lousy place . . . . I know it's hell. Don't quit." Colson described the efforts of New Mexico state legislators to build more prison space as "garbage" and added, "Maybe some of these politicians should go to jail."

"You keep talking like that and you'll be excommunicated," quipped an inmate.

Everyone laughed -- an accomplishment for Colson, since the inmates had been tense at the beginning of the session. The prison had been "locked down" for more than a month following a guard killing, and Colson was the first outside speaker allowed in since then.

Colson brings the same intensity that made him a force at the White House to his born-again life style and prison reform efforts. When he arrived at the Santa Fe prison, he strode in flanked by a flock of aides and associates. His manner was full of enthusiasm. His voice rang with authority and sincerity.

"Did you read "What Do You Say After You Say Amen?" he asked while chatting with a Baptist minister from Albuquerque before addressing the inmates. "Boy, read it!" Later, in a conversation with the warden, Harvey D. Winans, about another institution, Colson told him, "Great bunch of guys in that prison! Just a great fellowship going on there!"

"We are pleased to have you," the warden greeted him.

After the meeting with inmates, Colson said, "I can tell from listening to these guys that they gotta have an outlet. If not, there will be continuing problems." On his way out he bumped into Roger Crist, state superintendent of corrections. "Let them blow off steam," he advised Crist.

Crist was noncommittal at that moment, but later said of Colson, "I've always found the guy to be a straightforward, concerned individual." Crist said Prison Fellowship has a representative working full time in the prison and doing "an excellent job."

Watergate is firmly in the past for Colson. "We're finding when we go on the road he doesn't get any Watergate questions any more," said his public relations man, David Eno. " . . . Colson is apolitical."

Yet it was his painful Watergate experience that led Colson to his religious rejuvenation, described in detail in his best-selling book, "Born Again." He admits to being a "foxhole Christian" of sorts. "August of 1973, that's when I became a Christian," he recalls. "A lot of people thought that was a convenient thing to save my skin but I didn't want the publicity."

It was a time when Colson had all the publicity he could handle as Watergate revelations filled the media. It was also a time when he gained notoriety for his remark that he was "willing to walk over my grandmother" for Richard Nixon. But he recalls it as a happy time. "For the first time in my life I had a moment of genuine belief and faith." He began Prison Fellowship soon after that.

Colson says his hero is Mother Teresa, the ascetic who works with the sick and dying in India. "What makes Mother Teresa different is her willingness to experience the fellowship of suffering," he says. "If every Christian believed the Bible, they'd be doing the same thing."

Colson's life style centers on his work and is by no means uncomfortable. He says he draws no salary from Prison Fellowship. He lives in a Tysons Corner condominium with his wife, Patti, on a monthly payment from a blind trust containing some of his book royalties, the proceeds of the sale of his portion of his former law firm, Colson and Shapiro (now Dickstein, Shapiro & Morin), and other unidentified personal funds. He declined to disclose the amount of his monthly stipend.

A key concept behind Prison Fellowship is that saving a soul is one of the only successful ways to prevent prisoners from committing more crimes when they get out. The notion is based on the encyclopedic and widely respected work of Drs. Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow, "The Criminal Personality." Yochelson and Samenow place the responsibility for criminal behavior on the criminal, concluding that he is not a victim of circumstances but simply someone who prefers a criminal life style. The only way to change this, they say, is through the "deliberate conversion of the offender to a more responsible life style."

Colson's contention is that a born-again Christian experience is one of the few methods for accomplishing this. "A genuine Christian decision sticks. If you convert your life from self to Christ, it has got to change you."

As an example of how community response can block prison reform efforts, Colson cites an editorial in a New York newspaper supporting a recent $500 million bond issue to build prisons. "The only answer is more slammers to lock up mad dogs . . . ," it said.

Colson sees this kind of thinking as dangerous. "It really frightens me . . . . In America today we're pandering to the very worst prejudices of the people . . . . I used to do the same things in the Nixon White House . . . . When we start describing our fellow human beings as 'mad dogs' rather than wretched sinners like ourselves, we're in trouble."