If your idea of prison was formed in America, Skogome Correctional Institution just outside this southwest Swedish town will hardly seem like a prison at all.

And yet it is the toughest of the three Swedish prisons we will see this week. It is a "closed" institution, its chain-link fence topped by sharp ribbons of steel. An electric door, operated by a uniformed (but unarmed) attendant, guards the entrance. The windows of the inmates' rooms open only a few inches, and the panes are separated by flat metal strips that serve as bars without looking like bars.

We are here--a 12-member group headed by Chief Justice Warren Burger--to see firsthand the celebrated "model" prisons of Scandinavia, hoping to find some clue as to what to do about America's overcrowded, too expensive and counterproductive prisons.

Burger, whose interest in prison reform predates his arrival at the Supreme ourt, and who has visited prisons in many parts of the world, has brought along Sen. Mark Hatfield, Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, Norman Carlson, head of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, representatives of business and labor and government. I'm here as an ex-officio member of the team on the theory that someone has to help spread the word.

The lessons, if any, will be drawn later. Right now we are trying to absorb the differences between what we see here and what we are used to seeing.

For one thing, we are accustomed to the mind-numbing inactivity of American prisons. Here the prisoners work-- not busywork, but work with a commercial, money-making product. Prison industry, it is called.

Here at Skogome the industry is a large, modern laundry: hard, hot and mandatory. Inmates earn an average of some $2.50 an hour. After their initial five weeks, they are entitled to a 48- hour furlough every three weeks.

These are serious offenders, including a pair of murderers, a few rapists and a number of drug dealers among them. If the 75 inmates here (Skogome can handle up to 100) behave themselves for the next few months, they might apply for a transfer to one of the "open" institutions--Vangdalen, at Uppsala or, the envy of them all, Tillberga, near Vasteras.

The prisons (there are also more traditional penitentiaries around) are participants in an experiment in which inmates are paid market-based rates for their work: the laundry at Skogome, toy assembly and a machine shop at Vangdalen, a prefabricated- housing factory at Tillberga.

The idea is that prison should leave offenders better off than it found them, and in this regard, paid labor is considered crucial. It not only reinforces work habits; it also allows inmates to pay a part of the cost of their incarceration (they pay the same rate as staffers for their meals) and enables them to pay off their debts, including court-ordered restitution. Moreover, thanks to an enforced savings program, inmates leave prison with money in the bank to help them pick up the pieces of their lives.

Another important assumption of the experiment is that prisons should help to "socialize" inmates, not leave them needlessly bitter. And there is no question that the hostility level at these experimental prisons is low, that relations between staff and inmates are generally friendly and that the institutions are about as pleasant as prisons can be.

Inmates at all the institutions live in individual rooms, small but hardly less cramped than rooms in many college dormitories. At the "open" institutions inmates keep the keys to their own rooms, and are free to entertain guests --including wives and girlfriends.

Facilities at Tillberga, currently at about one-half capacity with 63 inmates, include an indoor tennis court, a weight room and a sauna. Treat convicts with warmth and dignity, the theory goes, and you make it easier for them to stay straight after their release.

The theory is so attractive that officials hardly seem to notice that it doesn't quite work: 22 percent of the inmates at Skogome misuse their furloughs. And within four years, a dismaying 65 percent of the inmates released from progressive Tillberga are back in trouble, a rate almost identical to that of the most traditional prisons in Sweden.