Calvin Anthony Cooksey, a convicted murderer, prison laundry worker and earnest student of electronics repair, is a model prisoner at Lorton reformatory, constructively using his 20-year-to-life sentence to develop skills that might keep him out of crime and out of prison.

When he becomes eligible for parole on May 14, 1992, Cooksey says, he hopes to leave prison, go into the electronics repair business, straighten up and fly right. By then, he will be 62.

Lorton has more than a dozen educational, job training, apprenticeship and industrial programs for its 2,440 convicted felons. They range from printing, culinary arts and barbering shops to remedial education and college degree programs in such fields as accounting and urban studies.

To keep a man at Lorton, the city spends an average of $14,290 a year--not quite the $15,895 starting salary for a school teacher but more than the current $11,475 cost of a year's tuition, room and board at Harvard.

James F. Palmer, director-designate of the D.C. Department of Corrections, says Lorton's programs are among the best in the nation. Adds City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers, "I think the prison system here is one of the most progressive and enlightened in the country."

Lorton inmates interviewed in a Washington Post poll of 238 prisoners overwhelmingly disagree with those assessments. They portrayed Lorton as a prison where there is real job training for only a few, and the rest pass time in a warehouse with walls and barbed wire fences.

Nearly half the residents interviewed said Lorton's programs would not help them make parole, get them a job or help them stay out of trouble.

Despite an overwhelming belief that they are capable of holding a job and settling down, two of every three respondents said they feared they would be unable to find work after being released. Eight of 10 said "inadequate job training" was an accurate description of Lorton.

Almost to a man, those interviewed said Lorton would be better off as a factory, where workers produced goods that could be sold on the open market and earned regular wages to help pay their room and board or pay restitution to victims in return for shorter sentences.

The poll, an examination of the records of 429 prisoners and additional interviews with inmates and corrections officials, indicated that on the tough question of rehabilitation, Lorton's five prisons for convicted felons are really two.

One, The Post found, houses that one-third of the prison population considered most likely to return to the community in useful roles--those persons imprisoned for the first time, for instance. Among this group of men participating widely in prison programs, respondents are more optimistic about the future.

The other Lorton appears to be little more than a long-term holding pen for men variously described by prison officials, corrections experts and fellow inmates as either too incorrigible, too far from release or too unmotivated to be redeemed.

"As far as the individual is concerned, I don't think the institution makes an effort to rehabilitate," Cooksey said, a sentiment expressed by most of those polled. "Their main effort is to store you here . . . . They don't have enough qualified people to even attempt to do a real good job of rehabilitation."

Lorton has job-placement services for about 100 prisoners awaiting release, officials say, has set aside some federally funded jobs for exoffenders and already operates similarly to a factory. Anything much beyond that, Palmer said, would be Utopia.

"They are in a program," he said of most of the inmates. "They are in an employable situation. Their wages are not as great as they would be in private industry, granted. But they are actually in something that they can come out on the streets and get employed doing."

As of Feb. 2, there were 2,118 persons on parole from Lorton, 1,442 of whom reported having jobs, compared with 442 unemployed, 34 in school or training, 147 sick or injured and 53 named in warrants to return to prison. Maintaining a job is one condition of parole.

Nevertheless, a 1982 corrections department study of the effectiveness of the programs found a mixed blessing. "The offenders who received specific skills training while confined or in community-based programs performed better over time than those who did not," the study concluded.

However, it added, "the training did not seem to affect their job choice after release, as shown by the fact that the majority of both the successes and failures found employment as laborers and service workers, with salaries in the lower range of the pay scale."

The dilemma of rehabilitation and job training at Lorton, a crowded, close-in and family-like city penitentiary that is virtually another neighborhood of Washington, exemplifies one of the nagging problems in criminal justice--what to do with the increasing number of people who are spending more and more time in prison.

"After 40 years of research and literally hundreds of studies," a panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1979, "almost all the conclusions that can be reached have to be formulated in terms of what we do not know."

"The entire body of research appears to justify only the conclusion that we do not now know of any program or method of rehabilitation that could be guaranteed to reduce criminal activity of released offenders," the panel said.

D.C. officials say the primary role of prison is to keep convicts out of the larger society, while also rehabilitating them--the latter a function that Chief Justice Warren E. Burger terms a moral obligation of American prisons.

Some corrections experts interviewed said Lorton inmates' views reflect the reality that most American prisons can do little more than pay lip service to the ideas of rehabilitation and job training.

Rising crime, ballooning prison populations, static funds and shrinking sympathy for lawbreakers make it extremely difficult to fulfill Burger's moral obligation.

"The whole idea that someone goes to prison to develop the skill and ability to live in the world is nonsense," said Ken Schoen, former Minnesota commissioner of corrections and now director of the justice program at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York.

"The fact is that prisons are not hospitals," Schoen said, "and as an administrator, your hands are full trying to avoid people being damaged by the experience . . . escaping, and doing each other in."

"Today," said Judge Fred B. Ugast, head of the criminal division of the D.C. Superior Court, "because of numbers and lack of resources and money, the rehabilitative aspects of incarceration . . . have lessened greatly. Today, in the minds of most judges, it's not realistically a likely result in a substantial number of cases."

The poll's findings on jobs training and rehabilitation were some of the most divergent. Inmates and officials seemed to be talking of two different worlds.

Rogers and Palmer say the prisoners' glum view of job training reflects the employment difficulties they anticipate in a market where unemployment of black men is hovering at Depression-era levels.

"It is extremely difficult in these times to find a job anyway, so it's going to be even more difficult during this period to find jobs for people who have been incarcerated," Rogers said. "That is a reality that we have to live with and accept every day, even if we don't like it."

The poll's findings were somewhat imperfect. None of the respondents were housed in the minimum-security facility, where nearly 100 of the 250 residents--those closest to parole--take part in a work-release program that permits them to earn regular wages on outside jobs and requires them to set aside 20 percent of their earnings.

Most of those in that facility who were asked to participate in the poll declined. Their refusal would appear to deprive the poll of the less than one-tenth of Lorton inmates who might be expected to hold more positve views.

But responses among those interviewed were mixed. For instance, one other group close to parole--those in Youth Center II, sentenced under the Youth Corrections Act--were overwhelmingly favorable to the job training efforts.

Yet among inmates in the central and maximum security facilities, those most optimistic about job training were generally the inmates with parole dates farthest away.

Lorton officials operate four areas of rehabilitative programs. The prisoners operate a fifth--more than three dozen religious and self-help organizations who share the philosophy that rehabilitation begins in the mind.

"If a person is really not trying to do something, it don't make no difference what you offer him. You can take a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink," said 30-year-old Raymond Cole-Bey, who is serving 8 to 24 years for burglary and is a former leader of one of several Lorton chapters of the Moorish Science Temple of America.

Education is the most popular program at Lorton. There are 523 inmates enrolled, including 316 in the basic and secondary education program--remedial courses aimed at preparing them to pass the General Equivalency Degree exam.

Another 207 are enrolled in a college program run through the University of the District of Columbia that offers associate's and bachelor's degrees in four areas.

"It basically gives the men something to do during the day," said Alethia Hill, acting supervisor of education at Lorton's central facility. "Initially, the motivation and the interest is not there. Once they get into the program and they progress and advance to higher classes, they build higher self-esteem in themselves. It also serves to build discipline."

The closest Lorton comes to a factory is its industries program, which includes laundry, furniture repair, printing, metal fabrication, clothing and maintenance shops, plus a prison warehouse. There are 424 inmates, about 30 percent of the population of the central facility, working in the industries.

The industries have contracts with local and federal government agencies to provide services and products. In addition to the city's license plates, Lorton inmates manufacture uniforms for city trashmen and special garments for some city health facilities.

Lorton industries are forbidden by law from competing with the private sector. Still, the industries took in $3.7 million last year, about $300,000 of which was returned to the city's general fund.

Most inmates in the industries program work about 30 hours a week, earning from 26 cents to 72 cents an hour, said Marion D. Strickland, superintendent of industries at Lorton.

Lorton also has vocational training in bricklaying, auto mechanics and auto repair, carpentry and drywall construction and accredited apprenticeship programs in barbering and culinary arts.

Two of every three inmates polled by The Post said they had a job, with half of that group saying they had more than one job. Most worked 20 hours a week or more, with one-fifth of all those interviewed saying they worked 40 hours a week or more. The average wage was $5.71 a week or $24.55 a month.

At one time, some Lorton inmates earned as much as $11,000 a year in prison jobs funded through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. But that program was curtailed in the prison in 1979 because of congressional objections.

James W. Freeman, the city's assistant director for correctional services, considers it unlikely that another program paying prevailing wages--a factory as once proposed by Burger--would be instituted.

"It's costing us now about $15,000 a year to keep an individual incarcerated," he says, "and then we're going to pay them another $10,000 or $12,000 on top of that--I'm not so certain that society's ready for that."

Low wages were only one of the complaints of inmates interviewed by reporters. They also said that the shops should be updated so parolees could be more competitive, and they complained that because most programs are not certified inmates do not get credit for their on-the-job experience in prison.

They also disliked regulations that limit participation in some programs to inmates closest to parole--regulations that Whitfield defends as practical.

"The average guy here spends seven years at Lorton. About 15 percent of our guys are doing 20 to life," he says. "If you're talking about when do you train a guy, how much good is it to finish it when he still has 18 years to do?"

Aubrey Pierson-El is one of Lorton's success stories. He first went to prison in 1965 for robbery, left in 1969 with an apprenticeship certificate in barbering, went on, he says, to become a master barber in 1971 yet was back in Lorton a year later, serving 6 to 18 years for armed robbery.

On his second bounce, Pierson-El, 39, a high school graduate, was chosen for what has become one of Lorton's most successful rehabilitative efforts, the culinary arts program. There, program founder and instructor Isaiah J. Johnson taught him food preparation, meat cutting, baking, discipline and motivation.

Pierson-El was paroled in 1979 and has been working since then as a cook, currently at the Officers Club at Bolling Air Force Base. There he earns $5.68 an hour, enough to care for his three-member household.

Though culinary arts is one of Lorton's most successful programs, it also is one of the smallest. It takes in one class every three years. There were 10 in Pierson-El's class--every one of whom received jobs upon release--and 16 in the current group scheduled to graduate in July.

In the atmosphere of limited rehabilitative programs, the self-help groups flourish--in some instances, officials say, providing redirection to inmates in the years when they are waiting to get into more direct job training projects.

The self-help groups offer a rainbow of opportunities. There are numerous religious groups, most of them Islamic or Christian. There are civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the Offenders Legal Liberation Movement Organization (the jailhouse lawyers) and the Lifers for Prison Reform. There are drama groups, such as the Lorton Voices, and professional societies such as the Accounting Technology Club. There is even a group called PAL, People Animals Love, for inmates with pets.

Race pride and self-improvement are staples of many of the groups. The Moorish Scientists, for instance, are Muslims who consider themselves descendants of the Biblical Moabites. Moorish Scientists add the suffix Bey or El to their given names, denoting their membership in one of the Moabite tribes.

"What we try to do," said Cole-Bey, a former grand sheikh or top official of one Moorish Science Temple chapter at Lorton, "is make them members aware that there's an erroneous concept that we have not made great contributions in the past and as a result of slavery, we're not able to make the type of contributions that we made in Africa and throughout Asia."

Nassar Abdul-Haqq, former head of the American Muslim Mission community in Lorton, acknowledges that many join the groups because in the hostile atmosphere of prison, there often is protection in numbers. Membership in religious and other self-help organizations also can be a plus when inmates come up for parole.

But, Abdul-Haqq adds, "I also think even a greater number come in because they're really searching for something, too. Most guys who come here don't like this kind of life style that brings them here."

Freeman said rehabilitation will improve only when the community's attitude changes and exoffenders are offered more jobs and more alternatives to crime.

But Cooksey counters that in Lorton, where most men are repeat offenders, it already is too late for many.

"By the time you go through here--go through any prison--two times and you didn't get anything from it the first time, and you didn't get anything from it the second time, it's all over with," he said. "When you go back in the street, who's gonna give you a job?"

Next: Why a life of crime? CAPTION: Picture 1 thru 3, Calvin Cooksey studies electronics at Lorton, parolee Aubrey Pierson-El learned cooking at Lorton. [T]he prison clothing shop. By James M. Thresher; By Lucian Perkins; By Craig Herndon--The Washington Post. Chart: The Washington Post Poll, The Washington Post