It comes almost as a relief: Ringe prison, on Denmark's Funen Island, actually looks like a prison. A huge, smooth- sided concrete wall some 18 feet high surrounds the place. The cars that take us inside drive, one at a time, through a sort of double-gated isolation chamber, the inner gate of which does not open until the outer gate is locked.

Closed-circuit TV monitors the entire facility, the various wings of which are connected by escape-proof tunnels. (These are serious felons --murderers, rapists, robbers, drug runners-- and the authorities don't like to take foolish chances.) It is the biggest we have seen on this tour of Scandinavian prisons, and it even has a tougher, less friendly air about the inmates, though none refuses to answer our questions.

Still, if Ringe were anywhere in the United States, it would be unbelievably--perhaps unacceptably--"progressive." The individual "roomettes" (I cannot bring myself to call them cells) are complete with the standard built-in modular furniture and unbarred windows to the outside. There is nothing remotely resembling an American cellblock, with all those iron bars and clanging locks and menacing noises. Many inmates have their own TV sets or stereo components and record collections.

Norman Carlson, director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, says an American prison like this might be expected to house 500 inmates. This one has 90, with a staff of 70.

Many beds are unmade, there being no requirement to make them. But what startles an American visitor is that this is a co-ed prison, and if inmates choose to sleep together before lock-down time, it's of no concern to the authorities.

What about pregnancies? "Well, that happens on the outside, too, doesn't it?" comes the response. The women have the babies if they want to, or they can choose to go to the local hospital for abortions. Female inmates may keep their infant children at prison with them.

"We try to give inmates as much responsibility as possible, in order to prepare them for life on the outside," the prison director explains. They cook their own meals in home-size kitchens in each pavilion; they shop for their own groceries. And, typical of prisons here and in Sweden, they work.

Here, they make Danish-modern furniture, for outside sale, earning about $100 a week. Unlike some other experimental prisons, Ringe has no enforced savings plan. Most inmates neither save any part of their earnings nor send any of it home.

The average sentence here is two years--high in Scandinavia, where short terms are the norm for all but the most serious offenses.

But even at Vridsloeselille, near Copenhagen, with the hardest prisoners and the longest average sentences on our tour, a "life" sentence may mean no more than eight or nine years' confinement. And that "harsh" term is softened by the fact that, after half his sentence is served, an inmate becomes eligible for regular monthly furloughs.

Scandinavian prisoners have their complaints, too, of course. At Vridsloeselille, the complaints--made through an elected prisoner council with real bargaining power--are mostly about solitary confinement without court supervision. Still there is nothing here to compare with "the hole" in American prisons. Everything here is based on the notion that inmates are in prison as punishment, not for additional punishment.

One result of the Scandinavian system is that there is virtually no in-prison violence. Brutal guards and inmate fights are rare, and the specter of prisoners running the institution by intimidating their fellows is unheard of. Mention homosexual rape, a commonplace in American prisons, and the inmates here look incredulous.

But the point of the tour, organized by Chief Justice Warren Burger, is to see whether some of the Scandinavian reforms have relevance for America. That will be the focus of a following column.