Washington's most distant neighborhood lies 20 miles southwest of the city line--Lorton reformatory, a sprawling and grimy reservation that is home for more than 2,000 sons of the nation's capital.

In some respects, the dismal six-prison complex spread over 3,000 acres of rolling hillsides in southern Fairfax County suggests the ultimate in urban displacement.

Its red brick dormitories near the banks of the Occoquan River look like housing projects transplanted from the urban outlands east of the Anacostia. On some nights, gigantic portable radios and tape players blare soul music as if it were summer in the city and they were set on the stoops and storefronts of Ninth Street in Shaw instead of beside the bunks of prisoners.

And, as in the heart of the inner city, there is idleness and often fear. Men wearing clothes that range from Army jackets and dungarees to designer jeans and T-shirts cluster along the sometimes-dangerous trails between buildings in the central prison complex, as if standing under the streetlights on any of a dozen city corners.

It is more than mere imagery, however, that gives Lorton, the city's penitentiary, its home-town character.

For the men of Lorton are truly men of this city: Eight of every 10 grew up in Washington. Eight of 10 left its schools before finishing 12th grade. Many of the guards and inmates dated the same high school sweethearts and sang in the same gospel choirs. More than half the inmates come from a single wedge of Washington that begins in the heart of the inner city around 14th Street NW and generally fans east and southeast to the District line.

These were among the major findings of a Washington Post poll of 238 Lorton inmates, an examination of the records of 429 prisoners and dozens of interviews with inmates and corrections officials, who gave the newspaper full cooperation.

The neighborhoods the inmates call home, The Post found, are spotted with poverty, drug problems and broken families. Some of the inmates sleep side-by-side in prison dormitories with those who were their neighbors on the streets or their housemates in one of the city's juvenile homes.

"I was surprised to find so many people I knew down here," said 32-year-old Greg Butler, who grew up near Fourth and T streets NW, and like so many other Lorton inmates, broke into crime as a juvenile. Since 1969, he has been serving 20 years to life for murder and armed robbery.

"I was one of the youngest and smallest guys down here when I first came, but I wasn't afraid," Butler said. "I was hip. I had friends from Cedar Knoll" (a D.C. detention facility for juveniles) and an uncle and two cousins in the prison.

Indeed, for many others as well, Lorton is a family affair. Half its residents said they have relatives who have been in jail, more than half have at least one dependent and two of every three said they do not think that children in their family are ashamed of them because they are in prison.

Lorton is close enough for comfort, unlike the state prisons that held two-thirds of all men surveyed by an authoritative 1979 federal study, which said these institutions were more than 100 miles from inmates' homes.

At Lorton, inmates can telephone home without long-distance costs and receive visitors seven days a week. Each prisoner is allowed to mail three letters a week at prison expense. A specially chartered Metrobus runs once a day from downtown Washington to Lorton and back.

Not surprisingly, three-fourths of the inmates interviewed at Lorton said they were visited by family members at least once a month, and two-thirds of those persons said they were visited every week.

The 1979 study found that fewer than one-fourth of the prisoners in state institutions were visited by family or friends as often as once a month and only one of every 15 was visited weekly. Sixty-two percent were never visited.

"We feel that by the mere fact of having the family contact on a regular basis, it minimizes the hostility and gives the residents some degree of hope that someday they'll be getting out," said James W. Freeman, the city's director of correctional services, who is in charge of the Lorton facilities.

Freeman's former boss, Delbert C. Jackson, who headed the D.C. Department of Corrections for nearly nine years until his death last year, considered Lorton's ties to the city almost uncanny. "If I let everybody out of Lorton this morning," Jackson once told an interviewer, "I could have 90 percent of them tracked back to three neighborhoods by suppertime."

Lorton has had a profound impact on some parts of the city. Jerome Miller, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, said that Washington probably has some neighborhoods or income groups in which at least one of every three families has someone in jail, just out or on the way.

"I think you've got a system that's producing the kind of thing it's treating," he said. "It's also producing every year a subculture in which it does not become so bad to be sent to Lorton. It becomes a rite of passage, and that's a very sick thing."

Ken Vallis, a Washington youth employment consultant, said, "Some of them actually expect to go to Lorton because they can return to the street at the top of their peer group."

On any given day, there are about 2,840 men at Lorton (capacity: 2,809), including 400 or more serving one year or less in a recently opened detention center designed to relieve overcrowding at the D.C. Jail. Of the five centers for felons serving more than a year, the largest is the medium-security central facility, a 26-dormitory unit that prisoners call "The Hill." It has more than 1,200 men.

An additional 450 are in maximum security, which is the only building at Lorton that houses most of its prisoners in cells and the only one surrounded by classic towering brick walls. Inmates have accordingly dubbed it "The Wall."

There are 250 men in the fenceless minimum-security prison, 350 in Youth Center I and 190 in Youth Center II. These centers are for persons committed under the Youth Corrections Act, a special provision for those 22 years old or younger at the time of sentencing.

Lorton's population has increased in recent years. It was lowest in 1974, when there were 1,795 in the five felony institutions. Last year, there were 2,704--an increase of 51 percent over eight years.

For some, the rising flood tide of crime, much of it drug-related, has swept a significant hunk of D.C. manhood into prison.

The Rev. Marie B. Carter operates a volunteer neighborhood self-help center at Ninth and O streets NW, in the general area where 14 percent of Lorton's inmates lived before they went to prison. On many Sundays, Carter drives a van filled with mothers and wives to visit Lorton. "Life is rougher for the women around here," she said, "because most of their men are in jail."

Valerie Gorham is one such woman. Her husband Calvin is serving 15 years to life after pleading guilty in 1978 to second-degree murder charges stemming from the shooting death of an off-duty D.C. police officer during a robbery at a Georgia Avenue go-go club.

At the time, Calvin Gorham was 18, a recent high school graduate, and according to his father, an aspiring singer and boxer looking for work. "He was a good son," Clarence T. Gorham said at the time. "He was liked by everyone who knew him."

Now Calvin Gorham belongs to the largest organization at Lorton, the 200-member Lifers for Prison Reform. At 23, he is young for a lifer, but not that young. The median age for prisoners at Lorton is 30; the median age for lifers, 27, according to prison officials.

He is lead singer of "Spirit," a prison rock group. On one night last year, Gorham was belting out a tune at the organization's awards banquet, while his wife sat in the audience, rocking her baby in her lap as she listened and watched.

"It's all right . . . tonight . . . I guess," she said, pausing between each utterance as she responded to a reporter's greeting. "But sometimes visiting can be so depressing." She looked at her husband on the stage. "He's so talented," she said, and then remained silent for the rest of the evening.

Richard Pryor, a comedian who so often has found poignant ways to make light of the ugliest side of black life in America, once said of courts, prisons and black men, "It's cold-blooded in the jail. They give blacks time like it's lunch. You go down there looking for justice and that's what you find--just us."

Some statistics suggest that Pryor would be right if he were referring to Lorton. About 13 percent of those arrested each year by D.C. police are white, yet 99 percent of the men in Lorton are black.

Freeman considers that disparity beyond his power to change. "We don't hang out a sign saying, 'No vacancies,' " he said. "We accept what's sent to us."

While 99 percent of the men at Lorton are black, a slightly smaller percentage of blacks, 92 percent, are among the 1,200 D.C. convicts who have been sent to federal prisons instead of Lorton.

Judge Fred B. Ugast, chief of the criminal division of D.C. Superior Court, said there is no effort by the 44 judges to avoid sending whites to Lorton. "Ninety-nine percent of the people I try are black," Ugast said. "Frankly, I just haven't had that many white defendants."

Those familiar with the justice system suggest that many of the whites arrested are charged with less violent crimes, such as prostitution and disorderly conduct. Many others are middle-class people or college students with the kind of resources, money or contacts to better use the system and head off trial, conviction or incarceration by, among other things, going into approved community programs as an alternative to prison or getting probation.

Still, the voices of Lorton are the product of an all-black, all-male, critically macho prison culture, confused by the racial aspects of their situation and at times seething with hatred.

"The 'Horror of the Nigger' is a creation of the white man," said lifer and convicted rapist Rudolph X Owens, 39, [minister of the 40-member Nation of Islam community at Lorton.]" 'He don't look right. He don't smell right. He don't act right.' The horror is that many black people believe it."

Inmate Lavance Green-Bey, 34, said, "It occurs to me now that when I committed the crime, I was in effect throwing up my hands and saying, 'Here I am, Mr. White Man. Take Me.' "

Green-Bey is serving 35 years to life for armed robbery and for murdering a deputy U.S. marshal during a gun battle outside a church on Florida Avenue NW in 1971. The shooting occurred during an attempt to free Green-Bey's brother, who was on leave from a federal prison to attend the funeral of their father.

The voices of Lorton are also those of men whose primary objective in prison is to get out; men who officials say are experts at playing the prison game.

"Inmates are great at making excuses," said Salanda V. Whitfield, administrator of Lorton's central facility. "They have answered questions all their lives and they know what people want to hear. We make them like that."

Lorton's inmates come primarily from areas of the city laced with poverty, drugs and shattered households, according to prison records examined by The Post and sorted by Zip Code.

The largest single group, 16 percent, lived in a swath of Northeast Washington sandwiched between East Capitol Street and New York Avenue and stretching from the Capitol to the Anacostia River, Zip Code 20002.

Fourteen percent came from the area just east of the 14th Street corridor (20001), while another 24 percent came evenly divided from two other areas: the far eastern tip of the city between the Anacostia River and the city line (20019), and Southeast Washington between Fort Dupont Park and the Suitland Parkway (20020).

If there is a growth area for future Lorton inmates, it is generally all of Southeast Washington east of the Anacostia River. Thirty-five percent of the Lorton residents aged 23 years and younger come from this area (Zip Codes 20019, 20020, 20032), where vast pockets of poverty and overcrowding are common. Another 22 percent in this category come from the inner city (20001, 20002).

In many respects, Lorton's residents, like those in other state prisons, defy some stereotypes of criminals.

Only one in seven had received public assistance. Two-thirds of the prisoners were working full time when they were imprisoned, though in most cases they had held their jobs for less than a year. Only 14 percent of the prison population are military veterans, and most of them did not serve in the Vietnam War.

Olen Lebby, 34, is one who said he did. Lebby pleaded guilty to gun assault charges in 1972. He was convicted of similar charges in 1975 and finally arrested on murder charges later that year after shooting an off-duty D.C. policeman outside a downtown movie house after a petty quarrel.

Lebby is now doing nine to 27 years on charges resulting from that shooting. He told interviewers that his troubles began after he got home from the war in 1970, and was never reprogrammed. "Killing ain't so bad after you get used to it," he said calmly. "That's what the government trained me to do--that's the job I did best."

The vast majority of men at Lorton blamed no one but themselves for their plight.

Only one in every 10 persons interviewed said friends led him wrong. One of five cited sudden bursts of anger--a bad temper--as the cause of his problems. One of six said he just took crime for granted, considered it a normal way of life.

Two of every three persons interviewed said they believe that even "superior criminals"--those who make the best plans--will eventually be caught and punished. Yet that never stopped them.

As another neighborhood of Washington, Lorton is doubtless the toughest part of town.

Nearly 90 percent of its men are repeat offenders. Two of every three inmates said they were involved in crime before the age of 18 and the median age for first incarceration was 16. Seven of every 10 inmates in the central and maximum-security prisons at Lorton committed either murder, armed robbery or other crimes that caused or attempted to cause bodily harm.

So for many in Washington, Lorton becomes a regular stop. "The recidivism rate suggests that these guys can't adapt," said John Showell, prison caseworker and former guard. "They can't handle the economic life outside and they find out that it is darker out there than in here. So they come back to the light."

Life in Lorton is not easy. Overwhelmingly, the prisoners rate food, sanitation and medical care as "poor." Lorton is overcrowded, there is little privacy, inmates steal from inmates, beat up each other and sometimes worse.

Between 1974 and late 1982, there were at least 75 deaths in the complex, 50 of them violent, including 10 suicides. The most common weapons are shanks--knives fashioned of everything from mop handles to metal strips and varying in length from several inches to more than 2 feet. More than one of every three inmates interviewed said he was "greatly concerned" that he could lose his life while in Lorton.

Asked if fear exists in the complex, Lorton director Freeman responded, "If you're living in a dormitory with 60 people in there and with no officer in there, sure, there's some fear."

Yet by prison standards, life at Lorton could be harder. The fact that most programs are voluntary allows some inmates to sleep until noon every day. Most prisoners are in dormitories, not cells.

While conjugal visits are not allowed and there is no furlough program for most inmates, one of every five inmates interviewed said there are ways to have sex with women while in Lorton. Nearly half the inmates said they have used marijuana during their current term.

"We definitely need more [job training] opportunities. Other than that, I think Lorton is the ideal situation insofar as prisons go because it is my belief that coercive discipline doesn't work," said Nassar Abdul-Haqq, a 35-year-old inmate and former head of the American Muslim Mission community at Lorton. "This is the closest thing to actually being into the community in terms of a prison."

Like many at Lorton, Abdul-Haqq, who is serving 9-to-27 years for armed robbery, assault and robbery, does not eat pork, but said he gets by anyway. "I might get criticized for making this [statement] by a lot of residents out here," he said, "but most of these guys eat better here than they ate out on the street. That's a true fact."

Lorton's residents have many faces: The father, husband, son or boy next door who got into trouble. The heartless young punk who boasts that he gunned down his robbery victim because the victim had only $10. The 33-year-old lifer who has earned two college degrees while in prison. The veteran convict who tells of being thrilled by the power of bursting into a room carrying a shotgun and telling everyone to raise their hands.

Lorton is a neighborhood so close to home. Lorton is a neighborhood 20 miles from your own.