George Thompson, a 26-year-old convicted robber from the Lincoln Park section of Washington near Capitol Hill, was the most recent inmate killed in the Lorton reformatory.

Just before the noon count of prisoners on Wednesday, Jan. 19, someone stabbed him to death with a long metal shank in the TV room of "2 Dorm," one of 26 dingy, crowded and often unmonitored bunk halls in the medium-security facility.

Two other residents who had bet several packs of cigarettes on a football game were quarreling over when the bet should be paid. A scuffle broke out, officials said, and Thompson jumped in. No one has been charged yet in the killing, but the FBI is investigating. Thompson, a parole violator, had been back in Lorton less than a year.

Incidents such as Thompson's death, the 79th to occur in the six-prison complex since 1974, are bitter reminders to Lorton's 2,840 inmates that serving a sentence there is not always the "sweet time" it so frequently is termed by some--prisoners, corrections officials and others--who compare Lorton to tougher penal institutions.

Life in Lorton is hard, lonely, frustrating, humiliating, and sometimes, as the Thompson slaying testifies, cheap. Six Lorton inmates died last year, two of them from stabbings and one from a drug overdose. Those things often are enough to make even the worst of Washington's criminals realize--if only stubbornly--that for those caught, convicted and sentenced, the wages of crime is punishment.

"You're in a prison, man," said lifer Sidney Davis, 36, who has spent the last 12 years in Lorton on a murder conviction.

"This is not no joke here," said Eddie Harris, 34, who has been at Lorton since 1975 serving 20 years to life for conspiracy and murder. "This ain't no playground . . . . If you sit down and talk to [a] man and listen to what he's saying from the inside, you might cry yourself."

The 238 Lorton inmates interviewed in The Washington Post Poll complained a lot about living conditions in the city's penitentiary, which is spread out over 3,000 acres 20 miles southwest of the District line in southern Fairfax County.

One of every four said he had been assaulted, more than half said they have had something stolen from them, nearly half said that inmates get away with serious breaking of the rules without being punished and nearly half said they are concerned about losing their life in Lorton.

Half the inmates said they do not believe the six-prison complex has enough guards. Three of every four inmates interviewed said the guards are unfair in applying prison rules, and nearly nine of 10 respondents gave a negative rating to the guards' ability to keep the complex safe.

There are drugs in Lorton. Nearly half those interviewed said drugs frequently are smuggled into the prisons and four of every 10 said they have smoked marijuana during their current term. Half of that group said they have smoked it frequently.

Lorton administrators say they run an open correctional complex, where men are well fed and care is proper for a prison. The inmates interviewed in The Post poll strongly disagreed.

Three of every four said authorities do nothing unless there are riots or demonstrations, and two of every three complained that those who run Lorton do not try to make the prison as good a place as possible.

The most resounding criticisms of Lorton were aimed at food, sanitation and medical care. Eight of every 10 men interviewed said that, even by prison standards, each of the three categories was "not so good" or "poor."

Prison administrators who examined the poll's findings were generally incredulous. "In regard to that statistic that one out of four has been attacked, that's a ridiculous statistic," said Maj. David P. Decatur, commander of the 317-member force of correctional officers at the central facility, where Thompson was killed.

"That would mean that 300 of the 1,200 in central had been assaulted. That would be ridiculous," Decatur said. He said 42 assaults were reported last year in central--more than twice as many as in 1978--and blamed the increase on tougher, younger prisoners.

Decatur said he does not expect men in prison to be law-abiding. "You've got to remember one thing. We do not have people here who are known to conform with the law. That's why they're in jail."

William M. Plaut, acting administrator of the maximum security prison at the complex, said he did not believe conditions were as severe as indicated by the poll's findings.

"When you interview people who are in an environment in which they don't want to be, when you're talking to prisoners, men who have lost their freedom, men who have been incarcerated," Plaut said, "they're gonna have complaints . . . Most of the complaints you have received are reflective of the mood of the men."

The Washington Post poll was not the first time the men of Lorton have complained. In 1979, class action suits were filed in U.S. District Court alleging that conditions in the central and maximum security facilities, which house nearly 1,700 men, violated inmates' constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.

A year later, a jury ruled in favor of the inmates in the maximum security facility, awarded $600,000 in damages to 375 of them and ordered the city to improve security in the prison. A federal appeals court panel overturned the verdict last month, but by then the city had made most of the required improvements.

In 1981, the city and plaintiffs agreed to an out-of-court settlement with no finding of fault and no monetary awards in the central facility case, and prison officials agreed to make many modifications over the next seven years.

In the visiting halls and among the voices of Lorton, it is difficult sometimes to sense fully the impact of living conditions in the prisons. Lorton, like other prisons, is a world where bold words and square-shouldered street-corner swaggers give the impression of toughness, defiance and iron will.

But ultimately, inmates say, the system wins out in most cases, the reality of a long sentence sinks in and even the toughest of the tough knuckle under and start playing the prison game--if only as a way to get out of Lorton.

"It's sweet to a certain extent," said Harris, an officer in the Lorton Voices drama group. "But you're not with your people. You're not with your loved ones. You're locked up. You're still incarcerated. So how can you say it's sweet?"

"Pacification, that's what it is," said 30-year-old Howard Thomas Poole, who has been at Lorton since he was 18, serving 13 to 40 years for robbery and rape. "They're pacifying us with these little programs and functions . . . but I never forget that I'm a convict."

Conditions at Lorton have rarely been examined thoroughly by objective observers. D.C. corrections officials have not applied for certification of the six-prison complex by the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections, a national professional group that accredits prisons and other corrections agencies. In its three-year existence it has approved programs and conditions at about 30 maximum- and medium-security institutions.

Still, in some respects, today's Lorton seems a far cry from the Lorton of only a few years ago where inmate unrest and rebellion were common.

In 1972, about 1,800 prisoners took part in a five-day strike over prison conditions. At regular intervals after this incident other, occasionally violent, protests occurred at the prison. In one, an inmate was killed trying to escape, authorities said.

Some inmates interviewed who were at Lorton during stormier times said they have seen marked improvements since then, some of which tell as much about how far the prison has to go as they do about how far it has gone.

Joseph Joyner has been at Lorton the last 12 years serving 25 years to life for murder and bank robbery. He noted, for instance, that in his dormitory, an honors unit for well-behaved prisoners, there are only two shower heads in a single stall to serve 29 men. Often, because the stall is so small, only one man can shower at a time, Joyner said.

But Lorton's loose schedule, he added, makes it possible for people to shower at any time of the day, not only during prescribed hours or a set number of times. That, he said, makes for a much more hygenic dorm population, especially in the after-work hours of warm summer nights.

The most consistent complaint about Lorton over the years has been medical care. Eighty-five percent of those interviewed in The Post poll rated medical care as either "not so good" or "poor."

There are medical facilities on the complex grounds, including an infirmary at the central facility. But inmates complain that lines are long, treatment is minimal, no doctors are on duty on weekends and at night and trips to the nearest emergency services can consume critical time.

James W. Freeman, the city's assistant director for correctional services, who is in charge of the prisons, said that nearly all of the men who come to Lorton leave in better physical condition than when they came in.

All prison meals are planned by trained dieticians. In addition, a group of Muslims prepares meals that are entirely free of pork and pork derivatives for the estimated 500 prisoners who belong to the Islamic faith.

Four physicians work full time at the complex, officials said. Others are on call and medical technicians are always on duty. He said many men in Lorton get medical treatment far more often than they would on the outside. The prison also has emergency arrangements at the hospital at nearby Fort Belvoir and at D.C. General Hospital for more serious cases.

Freeman and Plaut said Lorton could have better psychiatric services for its residents. There are only a handful of psychologists on the staff and psychiatric services are available on a limited basis.

Plaut said that many of the men in the maximum security facility, the only one in Lorton where all prisoners are in some sort of cell, should be getting better psychiatric treatment.

"It really isn't enough," he said. "Some of these men are really not 'sick' enough to go to a hospital like St. Elizabeths. [But] I personally question whether they should be in a penal institution such as we have here."

The most menacing aspect of life in Lorton, The Post found, is crime within the prison, especially assaults. Six of every 10 persons interviewed said that frequent inmate violence is an accurate description of Lorton.

Four of every 10 inmates polled said they are afraid of being attacked by another inmate. And of the 25 percent who said they already have been attacked in Lorton, 40 percent said they have been attacked more than once.

The reasons for those statistics are manifold, according to inmates, administrators, prosecutors and prison officials. One is the attitude of prisoners themselves.

Idleness is the biggest problem in any prison and, at any given time, about half the men in Lorton are idle, not taking part in any of the voluntary education, job training or prison industry programs, nor working on one of the maintenance squads.

Plaut said that the maximum security prison was never designed to be a place to change men's minds, but rather a short-term penitentiary or adjustment center for occupants who stayed up to 90 days.

Now it has 450 inmates, nearly half of them in single cells for administrative or protective safekeeping, no industrial or job training programs, and only 90 inmates taking part in an extremely limited education program. Moreover, he added, "We have men who live here for years and years."

The central facility has numerous programs and more than three dozen self-help groups. Yet most of these activities are voluntary, and hundreds of men choose to do nothing with their time but watch television, play basketball and sleep, inmates said.

"If a guy is not in school or not assigned to a squad," said inmate Poole, "then he's sitting in the dormitory or he's walking around The Walk [in the prison yard] with that chip on his shoulder that came from the criminal justice system."

Not everyone gets into serious trouble at Lorton, especially those who follow the first commandment of survival--Thou Shalt Mind Thine Own Business.

Those who end up assaulted or killed, said inmate Joyner, who presides over a group of prison lawyers, are "people who are minding other people's business, people who are getting into things that they don't have no business in except they want to be in the in-crowd."

Karen P. Tandy, an assistant U.S. attorney who has prosecuted several cases stemming from fights in Lorton, said men have been asaulted over such things as a referee's call in a sports contest or the ownership of a sweater. "Most of the murders are senseless," Tandy said. "They begin over any number of ridiculous reasons."

Such are the values in Lorton. "Things that would be very minute to us on the outside become very precious to us on the inside," said Decatur, the commander of the correctional officers.

In some instances, inmates form friendships or join organizations for self-protection. An assault on a member of one religious group can lead to retaliation from not only fellow group members, but also from mutual friends.

And friendships are numerous at Lorton, where so many inmates come from the same neighborhoods of the city, grew up together in crime and often live in dormitories with old acquaintances.

"The District of Columbia's incarcerated population has a very high ratio of what would be called violent criminals," said Plaut, the maximum security administrator. "And then you have a system in Lorton where [the prison] is nothing more than a microcosm of some of the worst neighborhoods of Washington."

Not only do the prisoners know one another, but many of the guards grew up with persons who now are inmates. That, some say, also has an impact on the general mood of the prison and on prison crime.

Tony Travisono, director of the American Correctional Association, said that in such instances childhood hostility often can spill over into prison squabbles. In addition, he said, employes or their families who are well known to prisoners can be more susceptible to pressure to break prison rules by, for instance, bringing in contraband.

"Familiarity breeds contempt," Travisono said. "It's like the cop on the beat--the worst place a cop has to go is in his own neighborhood."

Lorton administrators generally praise their largely hometown guard force. An estimated 70 percent of the 785 correctional officers are black and from the D.C. area, sparing Lorton the cultural clashes common in some other prisons where inmates from big city ghettoes are watched over by guard forces with roots in small rural towns.

At the same time, Lorton officials acknowledge that familiarity can be hazardous. Decatur said some officers have resigned because of the pressure of policing their former friends.

Lorton inmates said little about sexual assaults in the poll and in subsequent interviews with reporters. Prison administrators said only a handful of rapes occur each year.

They attribute that to the frequent visits prisoners receive from their wives and girlfriends--conjugal visits are not allowed but some do take place, inmates and administrators said--and to younger inmates sticking together to avoid being raped by older men.

Poole said that during his first year in Lorton he witnessed another young inmate being raped, but he said he has never been sexually assaulted. "If a prisoner starts talking about raping me, I'm going all the way," Poole said. "They gon' carry me or him out in a pine box."

Inmates and corrections officials seem to agree that Lorton is a prison with all the accompanying personal inconveniences, dangers and disciplines.Still, they say, life there is better than at most.

"If you polled the 450 inmates [in maximum security] and asked them if they wanted to go elsewhere, you would have very few takers ," Plaut said. "Nobody wants to leave Lorton--very, very few."

Washington Post Staff Writers Linda duBuclet, Kenneth E. John and Cynthia Luessenhop contributed to this report.