AFTER THERE WAS A tumultuous year inside its state prisons, Virginia is undergoing a different kind of prison uproar -- outside the walls. Politicians are jockeying for public positions on prison issues, preparing themselves for what is likely to be a leading topic of debate in this year's state legislative session. But unless some consensus emerges, corrections policy will continue to suffer the consequences of inconsistency and bureaucratic warfare.

The politicking and second-guessing are not exclusive to Virginia. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes has been wrestling with legislators over prison policies and personnel ever since he took office. And only this week in the District of Columbia, Mayor Marion Barry has been making some political adjustments in his previous stand against building new jail space, in response to increasing pressure from the courts and Capitol Hill. But the difference right now in Virginia is that Gov. Charles Robb's latest attempt to do something about the state's troubled Mecklenburg Correctional Center is already under sharp fire.

No sooner did Allyn R. Sielaff take over as the new prisons chief and announce some changes in the operation at Mecklenburg than the state board of corrections held a special meeting to scuttle his plans. Mr. Sielaff had sought to eliminate a "behavior modification" program that uses rewards and punishment in attempts to train certain inmates for eventual reassignment to other prisons. He also had announced that Mecklenburg would be converted from a special prison for inmates with disciplinary troubles into a regular maximum security facility.

Given what's been happening, Mr. Sielaff's doubts about the behavior modification program may be well founded. But -- and here's the bureaucratic rub -- he made his announcement without consulting the state board or the governor. That didn't sit well among members of a board subcommittee that had just finished recommending 1)that Mecklenburg continue to house the most disruptive inmates, and 2)that the behavior program be retained and improved.

Maybe modifications are all that's needed -- and not the complete turnaround proposed by Mr. Sielaff. But none of this political stop-and-go policymaking is doing much either for conditions in the prisons or for the likely terms of debate in the coming legislative session. The temptation for lawmakers will be to blame the troubles on Gov. Robb and to avoid any move that smacks of heavy financial commitment. If legislative leaders and members of the board prefer a more constructive course, they should huddle quickly with the governor and work out a legislative approach that is at least consistent and at best effective as well.