NOW IT'S Virginia Gov. Charles Robb's turn to wrestle in the limelight with troubles in his prison system -- as he has done only days after his Maryland counterpart, Harry Hughes, took it on the chin for all sorts of terrible events in a similarly troubled state system. In the District of Columbia, too, the courts have been less than awed by conditions in the correctional facilities that Mayor Barry oversees.

Yet the commonness of national complaints about the functioning of jails and prisons cannot excuse inhumane conditions, lax security, personnel difficulties or administrative mismanagement. Governors have to keep monitoring and improving their corrections systems. Gov. Robb, whose new prison chief announced a number of policy moves yesterday, is no exception. By ordering new security precautions, corrections director Allyn R. Sielaff has made clear there is no excuse for the alarming escape stories and prison-chaos reports in Virginia this year:

On Wednesday night, a convicted double murderer and hijacker escaped out the unlocked front door of a medium-security facility at the Bland Correctional Center and remained free until yesterday.

Five inmates -- one a Falls Church rapist sentenced to life plus 230 years after 11 other felony convictions, yet placed in a medium-security facility -- escaped temporarily on Thanksgiving from the Nottoway Correctional Center.

In August, a small group of inmates at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center staged an uprising and held guards and an employee hostage for a tense 18 hours.

In July, Mecklenburg inmates rioted, and later in the month, two guards were fired for using excessive force during a shakedown.

In late June, two maximum-security inmates fled from a work detail outside the State Penitentiary.

On May 31, six convicted killers escaped from death row at Mecklenburg.

It is not unreasonable to expect prisoners to be where they're supposed to be for the duration of their sentences -- and in security conditions befitting their crimes, as Mr. Sielaff evidently realizes. Gov. Robb, like Gov. Hughes, knows this, too. In each state, heads have rolled; Mr. Sielaff is Gov. Robb's third corrections director in less than three years to make changes.

Even with these changes, Gov. Robb and the legislature will have to watch the system closely while seeking still more effective ways to deal with lawbreakers. In turn, if people are alarmed and incensed about prison policies -- and prison breaks -- they should recognize that a better, safer correctional system will require financial commitments that up to now society has not been eager to make. The conditions contributing to crime exist outside as well as inside prison walls, and changes will have to come on both fronts.