From a small office on Dupont Circle, Alvin J. Bronstein, a short, thunder-voiced veteran of the civil rights movement and the American Civil Liberties Union's prison expert, has led a legal revolution.

As a result of his efforts, conditions in many of the nation's prisons have improved enormously and corrections officials and politicians across the country have been made aware that -- politically desirable as it might seem -- they cannot simply lock up criminals in substandard conditions.

Today, after a decade of prison reform efforts led largely by Bronstein, prisons have been declared illegally cruel and unusual and are being operated under court orders in 28 states, including Maryland and Virginia, and the District of Columbia; and legal challenges to major prisons are pending in 17 other states. Bronstein's National Prison Project -- a small office with seven attorneys and a $700,000-a-year budget -- has been involved in most of these cases and initiated many of the major ones.

In 10 states -- Rhode Island, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas -- the courts ordered sweeping changes throughout the entire statewide prison systems.

"We have sensitized the corrections establishment," said Bronstein, 53, a short, intense lawyer with dark, bushy eyebrows and a deep, resonant voice. He said the widespread need for prison reform in America shows "the low level of civilization of our society when more than half of our states have been found to be violating the most fundamental of our constitutional rights, the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment."

While Bronstein's efforts have been widely praised by activists, not everyone views them as particularly positive. "There's a tremendous love-hate relationship out there in the corrections community, mostly on the hate side, that this man would devote his life to dealing with people who have offended society as grossly as murderers, rapists and vicious assaulters, that he would take their side in the issue," said Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association.

Travisono was head of the Rhode Island department of corrections when Bronstein's project sued the system and won in 1977, and he recalled "how devastating it was to me personally when a guy who had killed a man -- a paraplegic in a liquor store, to rob him -- when this man brought me into court and called me cruel and unusual."

Nevertheless, there is a grudging admiration among many corrections officials for Bronstein, who has a reputation as a careful, exhaustive litigator without rhetorical flair. "I think the courts have done more to improve corrections in this country than any organization and individual, and many of the issues raised in the courts have been raised by Al Bronstein," said Norman Carlson, head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Travisono said some corrections officials see Bronstein and the ACLU "as an ally, a reluctant ally that has helped them forge ahead through court interventions" to get money out of tight-fisted politicians.

While officials across the country are reluctant to put out more money for improving prison conditions, the nation's state and federal prison population reached 369,000 last year, up a record 12 percent from the previous year, as legislatures established more mandatory sentencing laws and judges handed down longer sentences in response to growing citizen concern with crime.

Bronstein realizes that today most people do not agree with him. "It is very difficult to deal with the public attitude [toward prisoners] because they are very conservative. People always are during hard times. We have to do a better job on educating people that longer and harsher sentencing won't impact the crime rate, that we're actually throwing money down the drain and making people worse."

As part of this, Bronstein would "just as soon avoid" having to go to the Supreme Court. Today's court, he believes, "has not been favorably disposed to prisoners' rights." In a devastating blow to Bronstein and other prison reformers in June 1981, the court said that "harsh" prison conditions are the price of crime and ruled that prison overcrowding is not forbidden by the Constitution. The ruling set new limits on the power of federal judges to order sweeping prison reforms.

The kinds of conditions Bronstein's project has been fighting are described in the judge's order in the Rhode Island case: "Trash abounds . . . the entire structure is massively infested with cockroaches, rodents . . . the roof leaks . . . plumbing throughout Maximum is unsanitary . . . a stench of urine . . . the noise level throughout Maximum is deafening and maddening . . . a grossly inadequate system of medical care."

"We often know more about a prison system than the officials do," said Bronstein. For example, he said, in his suit against the Alabama system he entered 750 photos in evidence, had access to the prison computer system, and brought in batteries of national corrections experts to testify for his side.

The ACLU suit against Alabama -- Bronstein's first major case and the one in which he perfected the idea of going after an entire prison system rather than doing it in legal bits and pieces -- resulted in a January 1976 court order for sweeping reform of the system, which the court described as "barbaric and inhumane." The order sought to correct massive and admitted violations, such as overcrowding, violence, filth, and inadequate food, shelter, medical care and staff.

Unable to comply with some of the terms of the order, Alabama released about 2,000 of 5,400 prisoners on parole, to work-release programs and to halfway houses. The system remains under continuing court review.

The prison project's legal tactics would be impossible had it not been for a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1964 that allowed prisoners to seek relief in federal court. Before that decision prisoners were treated like virtual slaves; since then thousands of them have bombarded the courts with their petitions and, often with the help of Bronstein's group, they've won some important victories.

The National Prison Project was started in 1972 by Aryeh Neier, who was then head of the national ACLU. He did it by merging two prison projects, one of Virginia activist attorney Phillip J. Hirschkop and another of Herman Schwartz, a professor in Buffalo at the time who was the first into the Attica prison after it erupted in 1971. Schwartz is now a professor at American University.

Neier thought a special project was needed to deal with prisons in a broad and consistent way rather than the case-by-case approach the ACLU used elsewhere. He chose Bronstein because he "had the stature to unite the separate efforts" of Hirschkop and Schwartz. He said Bronstein is a "superb litigator . . . a master of factual details . . . . It's hard to think of any lawyer engaged in public interest law longer than Al Bronstein. As a litigator, day in and day out, he's been around longer than anybody."

The largest single source of funds for the project is the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, started with Avon money, which last year granted Bronstein's project $1.2 million over a three-year period. Other support comes from the Field Foundation; the National Presbyterian Church Social Action Committee; and the North Shore Unitarian Church in Plandome, N.Y. About a third of the project's budget comes from attorneys' fees paid by various prison systems under court orders.

Bronstein's passion for reforming the nation's prisons grows out of a lifelong mistrust of government. As a child in New York he listened to the stories of his father, who came to America when he was 17 from Russia, about Cossacks riding into town on horseback, beating Jews and burning their houses.

"A great uncle of mine was killed," Bronstein said. "They forced him to eat hard-boiled eggs until he choked. You hear these kinds of things about injustice and you begin to have a perpetual sense of outrage about injustice wherever you hear it or see it." His sense of outrage was reinforced as a young man when stories of the Nazi death camps came to light.

What about the injustice committed by a murderer?

"The difference is the state, the government is not involved. It's an individual committing an act of outrage, but when the state gets involved it's a worse kind of outrage because it's the people's government conducting or performing an act of injustice, and that's much worse than an individual act."

In 1964, after a boring decade in a family law firm, Bronstein went south to become chief staff counsel for the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee in Jackson, Miss. He participated in the exciting and dangerous integration struggle and then went to Harvard at the end of the decade to become associate director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government.

Later, in 1971, when northerners were getting out of the civil rights fight in the south, Bronstein and two partners opened a new interracial law firm in New Orleans with plans to teach young black lawyers how to serve the movement and still make money. In 1972 he was tapped for the prison project.

Bronstein is a traditional liberal. His credo is that the criminal justice system "must deemphasize its concern with traditional crime because the emphasis is misplaced and the activities of burglars, thieves, muggers and bank robbers, although costly, do not threaten the fabric of our society and will never be affected by our present over-reliance on incarceration . . . . The companies which knowingly manufacture unsafe products, the corporate executives who steal millions from the public by price-rigging and overcharging, the public officials who use their positions for personal gain, the industries that pollute our environment and the officials responsible for the My Lais and Cambodias are the criminals that we need to be concerned about."

Bronstein's approach from the beginning has been the broad frontal attack. Two months after he became director of the project in June 1972, he filed a sweeping legal challenge to secret federal parole procedures denying inmates access to reports about them and reasons for parole denial. Not only the federal system, but many state systems were changed as a result. Bronstein said inmates need to know why parole is denied so they have an idea what is expected of them and also because this "removes in the mind of the prisoner the conception that the board is acting in an arbitrary or capricious manner."

Prisoners have won enormous awards through the kind of suits that the prison project has brought. Last April a federal judge in Richmond fined the former head of Virginia prisons and several current officials $85,000 for failing to protect prisoners at Powhatan Correctional Center from violence. In early 1979, Bronstein's prison project obtained a $518,000 settlement for a former Virginia prisoner who became paralyzed after he went untreated in a prison hospital -- at the time said to be the largest sum ever granted to a prisoner for mistreatment in an American prison.

"What the project did," said Schwartz, one of the project's founders, "they went after states as a whole. That was the unique contribution by Bronstein . . . to go after an entire system, that kind of visionary big thinking."

Despite the project's success, it is a difficult time for prison reformers. "This is not a period in which one can make large breakthroughs because the attitude of the U.S. Supreme Court is to be suspicious of any effort to enhance rights in any broad ways," said Neier. "But even in this climate it's possible to accomplish a great deal, but only by exhaustive accumulation of evidence in court cases, just documenting to a fare-thee-well how standards are not met and how prisons contribute to the likelihood that people will go back to prison."