From Maryland's Eastern Shore to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, armies of construction workers are erecting monuments to America's frustration with crime. They are building prisons.

With an emotional public looking to new prisons as tangible proof that criminals will be punished, the politics of crime in the 1980s has fueled a construction boom in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia that will cost at least $334 million before the decade is out.

Nationally, the biggest prison building campaign in U.S. history is under way. More than 100 new prisons costing $3.5 billion are planned or under construction in state and federal systems, according to Contact Center Inc., a Nebraska-based criminal justice information group. California alone is sinking more than a billion dollars into new cells for its criminals.

Despite the investment, the tide of new inmates continues to overflow prison walls. Crowded institutions lead to management breakdowns that add momentum to the building boom. And prison demographers do not expect relief until 1990, the year prison populations are expected to peak.

The enthusiasm for new prisons is not shared by all. To many criminologists and corrections experts, the rush to build is an example of what happens when emotions are allowed to cloud a complex issue and undermine planning. They see jarring paradoxes that belie the simple assumption that prisons are the answer:

* The current building spree notwithstanding, many criminologists and corrections experts believe that prisons do little to curb crime. North Carolina's rate of imprisonment, for example, is five times as great as Minnesota's, but the states have a roughly equivalent rate of serious crime.

* Even as the public clamors to punish criminals in harsh prison environments, corrections architects advocate "campus" facilities with "normalized" surroundings as the only practical and humane design for incarcerating most inmates. The pressure to sentence more criminals to longer terms in prisons, some corrections experts note, continues without any consensus of how punitive a prison should be.

* In 1984, the year of Virginia's "great escape" -- the largest death row breakout in U.S. history from the Mecklenburg Correctional Center -- the state enjoyed its lowest escape rate in 11 years. But the tremendous political repercussions of the escapes of the six inmates demonstrated how sensitive corrections policy is to public outcry.

Those who run the nation's prisons express frustration of their own because popular opinion seems to have taken the reins from their hands.

"I think the public is angry about crime and angry about being the victims of crime," said Frank A. Hall, Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services. "That's been a strong part of this whole sentiment to build, a general public reaction to crime."

"We really don't know in this country what we want prisons to do," said Pat McManus, the court-appointed special master of the Tennessee prison system. "We are simultaneously to punish, to keep them off the streets, to rehabilitate -- without any rational, coherent value system of what we want prisons to accomplish . . . . Without thinking about it we are looking at prisons, at corrections, as our bulwark against crime." Administration by Crisis

In Maryland, Virginia and the District, the political pendulum has played havoc with corrections systems, producing abrupt and sometimes wasteful policy changes since the mid-1970s. Any progress toward a consistent philosophy of corrections has been all but lost in the play of forces, and prison managers find themselves operating in an atmosphere of constant crisis.

There is nothing terribly new about crises in corrections. They are cyclical in American history.

In their book, "Imprisonment in America: Choosing the Future," Michael Sherman and Gordon Hawkins wrote, " . . . Even after the massive building programs of the seventies and eighties virtually every state had facilities which housed more inmates than the designers intended." Sherman and Hawkins were referring to the 1870s and 1880s. But they might have been talking about the 1820s or the 1930s.

The modern troubles arose in a context of shifting values in the 1960s and 1970s. In the '60s, a period marked by war in Vietnam and a liberal approach to social issues, the crime rate rose steadily while the prison population of the states actually dropped -- from 213,000 in 1960 to 196,000 in 1970.

The decline emboldened reformers to ask for a halt to prison construction. They argued that if prisons were not built, society would be forced to find effective alternatives to incarceration.

Just as the call for a moratorium went out, however, the early '70s brought a perception that crime rates were rising steeply. The public's fear of crime prompted an immediate response from politicians and some segments of the criminal justice community. The prison population soared.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the incarceration rate of prisoners per 100,000 population almost doubled between 1973 and 1983 -- from 96 to 179 (from 204,000 prisoners to 439,000). In Maryland, the prison population grew even faster, doubling between 1978 and 1984.

There is no consensus as to why the rate shot up so fast. Some attribute it to the baby boom generation reaching the crime-prone age during the 1970s, with a resulting boost in crime and prison populations. Others, however, say the "crime wave" was exaggerated by inaccurate reporting techniques and that prisons overflowed because of politically popular sentencing and parole policies that put more people behind bars for longer terms.

Whatever the correct explanation for the massing of humanity behind bars, the larger prison populations caught many corrections officials and politicians by surprise.

"The baby boom generation hit the prisons in the mid-'70s just like they did the schools," said Wayne Farrar, a spokesman for Virginia prisons. "The schools were ready for it, but nobody in the prison systems saw it coming."

Saddled with an unmanageable horde, prison managers understood that any resolution of the crowding problem was largely out of their hands. Crime rates in the streets and sentencing practices in the courts dictated the "front door" flow of new inmates, while parole board policies controlled the "back door."

These pressures bore down on Virginia, Maryland and the District in the 1970s and 1980s with varying results. Each jurisdiction today has a markedly different system with its own set of problems.

Virginia began a prison building campaign earlier than the others, but the system's modern prisons were run by not-so-modern managers who had trouble coping with the complex legal environment of the 1970s and 1980s. Maryland's corrections officials toyed with alternatives to new prisons, but the strategy backfired and the state has been scrambling to catch up to pro-building states such as Virginia.

The District did not hesitate to build, but it is now caught between hard-liners who want to add even more space and city residents who believe the number of inmates is already too high. Clampdown and Buildup in Virginia

The Virginia story could easily start with an account of Hubert E. Hoffler, the drug kingpin who escaped from a one-armed guard while on leave from the penitentiary in 1973. Or perhaps with the tale of the escape one year later of the penitentiary's "chess club" -- Claude F. Bloodgood III and Lewis S. Capleaner, convicted murderers who fled a chess tournament outside the prison's walls.

These cases contributed to a consensus in Virginia that liberal prison programs of recreation, work release and furloughs had gone too far. In this sensationalized and politicized atmosphere were sown the seeds of prison reorganization, of clampdown and buildup.

The building program began in earnest in the mid-1970s, enabling Virginia to avoid the significant crowding problems experienced by Maryland and the District today.

Building the maximum-security prison at Mecklenburg in 1977 and then four new medium-security institutions (three completed and one set to open next year) in Brunswick, Nottoway, Buckingham and Augusta counties, Virginia ended up with about $110 million in capital costs.

The enormous price of building a prison is tiny in comparison with the operating and financing costs. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation reported in its publication, "Time to Build?" that over a 30-year period those costs can amount to more than 10 times the initial construction figure. That would mean $1.1 billion by 2010 for just the five prisons built in Virginia between 1977 and 1986. The state has 38 other institutions to operate as well.

It was not surprising that Gov. Charles S. Robb called the price of incarceration "a very significant expense that comes out of the taxpayer's pocket that could otherwise go to providing aid to education or other human resources programs."

That expense is difficult to control, in part because it is influenced by so large a cast of political actors: from disenchanted voters to posturing elected officials to county sheriffs angry because their local jails are backed up with convicts who belong in state prisons.

The problem of jail backup in Virginia, acute in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was solved when the new medium-security prisons started coming on line in 1982. Maryland defused a similar situation with its new prisons, while in the District the backup of sentenced felons at the jail is perhaps the hottest corrections problem the Barry administration faces.

A different form of heat has profoundly influenced prison management in Virginia and elsewhere: the prisoners' rights movement. Beginning in 1972, the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project and other reformist legal groups filed suits in federal courts to improve prison conditions. The result: The District, Virginia, Maryland and about 30 other states are under court order to make changes.

A case involving the Mecklenburg Correctional Center played what some consider was a critical role in the management breakdown that contributed to the upheaval there last year.

A lawsuit filed in 1981 alleged inhumane conditions and guard brutality at the prison. The resulting consent decree led the staff to believe that "the prisoners are running this place" and that the ACLU had undermined its ability to discipline inmates and maintain security, according to a task force analysis of the Mecklenburg escape and the prison revolt and hostage seizure that followed it.

Staff morale plummeted and guards were left to divine the specific terms of the settlement. The warden received his copy of the document from the inmates. The resulting failures of security at Mecklenburg, national experts say, illustrate the profound effects of prisoners' rights suits and how they have transformed the operation of prisons.

"It used to be a feudal system," said Kenneth Schoen, former corrections chief in Minnesota and now director of the Clark Foundation. "You had the baron -- the warden who was in charge. His word was unimpeachable. Then the advent of the courts getting involved has caused major changes in how prisons are managed. Many systems have not adapted particularly well to the new requirements."

The Virginia system, in the words of state corrections director Allyn R. Sielaff, suffered from a failure to adapt to the modern environment. It is a far-flung system with 13 major and 30 smaller adult institutions, 9,800 inmates in its custody and many staff members who learned their trade before there ever was a National Prison Project.

"What has happened here and elsewhere in the nation is that people have not been well prepared to become corrections managers," Sielaff said. " . . . One has to be skilled in budgetary matters. One has to be knowledgeable about the law as it applies to corrections. It has become a far more complex organization to administer . . . . What has happened is that some people in this department have been and are over their heads in terms of how well they can perform."

Compounding the problem in Virginia, according to Robb and Robert M. Landon, the corrections chief who resigned last fall, was the intense media coverage of the Mecklenburg escape and the series of incidents throughout the system that ensued in copycat fashion.

"The escape set up a 'Guinness Book of Records' situation," said Landon. "Things in the department that used to appear with used cars and corn plasters on the back pages made it onto the front page." The District's Three-Legged Dilemma

In the District of Columbia, the problem of prisons takes the form of a triad.

On one side is hostility from Fairfax County, where the District's Lorton Reformatory is located. On the second side is the unrelenting pressure of new inmates, pumped into the prisons by a criminal justice system that incarcerates a strikingly high percentage of the District's residents.

On the third side of the triad is a web of court orders that caps the number of prisoners in the seven Lorton institutions, with the result that a significant number of convicts who should be at Lorton are backed up at the severely crowded D.C. Jail.

Add to the mix the transfer last fall of Lorton's Youth Center I residents after a gas explosion there and the result is virtual gridlock in the District corrections system.

And the situation is further aggravated by the loss of an important safety valve. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which houses 1,400 D.C. convicts on contract, is now itself too crowded to accept many more.

The pattern in District corrections, as in Virginia, has been liberal experimentation in the 1970s followed by a conservative backlash into the 1980s. In the early '70s there were large numbers of convicts in halfway houses. Prisoners routinely commuted between home and prison on "therapuetic furloughs." A buzz phrase of the period was "alternatives to incarceration."

"Those were the days when they'd try anything," recalls Salanda Whitfield, administrator of Lorton's Central Facility. "Somebody would come by and say, 'How about this program?' and we'd go for it."

But, at a time when Richard Nixon was calling Washington the nation's "crime capital," a string of escapes and prison riots triggered a backlash. Attorney General William B. Saxbe ordered a halt to furloughs. Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. (Ind.-Va.) pronounced Lorton "an unwelcomed canker in the Fairfax County countryside."

The result, not surprisingly, was clampdown and buildup.

In that atmosphere, the front door pressures on the seven institutions at Lorton and six community corrections centers in the District have grown substantially in the past 10 years. U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, who prosecutes criminal cases in the District, said the number of convictions has nearly doubled since 1979.

"We are headed to historic numbers of convicted defendants in the city," he said, "and there is no evidence whatsoever that the number of serious offenses for which convictions are obtained is going to do anything but skyrocket."

The District incarceration rate of 825 per 100,000 in 1984, which is more than double what it was in 1975, compares to 354 for the highest state (Nevada) and also exceeds that of two comparable city jurisdictions: 741 for Baltimore city and 445 for Fulton County, Ga. (Atlanta).

With inmates pouring through the front door, criminal justice hard-liners such as diGenova and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate D.C. appropriations subcommitee, have successfully pressed for tightened parole guidelines to stanch the flow of paroled inmates out the back door exit.

The result has been more and more inmates serving longer terms, but without a commensurate growth of prison space. Such moves by legislators, prosecutors and judges to lock up convicts without the space to house them have put prison systems in the District and in many states in an almost untenable position.

"There is no criminal justice system," said Leroy Anderson, a spokesman for the D.C. corrections department. "There are only criminal justice agencies. They work at cross purposes. Corrections departments just become a dumping ground."

The incentive to build in such an environment is strong, but in the District of Columbia adding prison space is a divisive philosophical issue. Politicians who cut their teeth in the civil rights movement, such as Mayor Marion Barry and many of his associates in the D.C. government, are not well disposed to enlarge what some would call an American archipelago where 98 percent of the inmates are black.

"It's not like you aren't incarcerating people," said Barry, whose administration has conducted a $15.1 million building campaign since 1980 to add 1,300 prison beds for felons at Lorton. "I think the focus ought to shift to how do you stop people from committing crimes. How do you stop this cycle?" The End of the Liberal Approach

The Maryland prison system, now in the middle of the area's largest building program, has come to this pass by a completely different route from that of the District or Virginia. In Maryland, reformist notions of corrections died hard.

They died in front of television cameras one day in March 1981 when 26 work-release prisoners were indicted and arrested on more than 60 charges of escape, murder, assault and narcotics violations. Baltimore State's Attorney William Swisher told the media, "These were hard-core criminals roaming loose in the streets like animals, and nobody was doing anything about it."

The arrests obliterated the policies of corrections chief Gordon Kamka, an appointee of Gov. Harry Hughes who advocated alternative programs of work release and community-based corrections while opposing new prison building schemes. Kamka believed in the theory that prison population automatically expands to overflow the available space, hence expansion is futile.

With Kamka's resignation, Maryland's dalliance with liberal notions was over.

To some it appeared that common sense had won out over wishful thinking. But Jerome G. Miller, president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, offers another version of what happened in Maryland.

The work-release arrests and the ensuing political backlash, he said, were typical of institutional revolts against the idea of community corrections. He said the constituency for prisons and prison expansion -- prison staff, prison designers and builders -- resists emptying out cells.

"The minute you lower those prison populations, you tend to get set up within the system," Miller said. "If you followed it, you'd find that most of the indictments were dismissed."

In the work-release case, in fact, only three inmates were successfully prosecuted out of a total of 26 inmates arrested together and three others arrested separately, said Thomas Kane, assistant state's attorney for Baltimore.

For Maryland, the upshot of the Kamka imbroglio was a lurch toward conservative policies. Community corrections programs, launched ceremoniously, were junked. Plans for new prisons were dusted off.

"The governor changed his position and adopted a strong law-and-order stand and decided to build. And look what he's got -- a system that more overcrowded in 1985 than in 1979," Kamka said in a recent interview.

Corrections department figures show that Kamka's charge is correct. Snared, like the District, in a tangle of court orders and responding to an incarceration rate that is the third highest among the states, Maryland's eight major and 13 smaller adult institutions house 40 percent more inmates than they have room for.

The stream of new convicts, some of whom had been diverted under Kamka, now flows directly into Maryland prisons, exacerbating the crowding problem and forcing a continued reliance on old and unmanageable facilities such as the Maryland Penitentiary, built in 1811.

The result has been a period of crisis management in which a housing shell game has overwhelmed efforts to conduct inmate programs of work and education. Hughes sees no other choice.

"When you're fighting overcrowding every day and whatever you do you don't see any reduction -- you see a net increase in intake every day over a period of years -- your thoughts are dominated by where to put people," Hughes said.

Security management breakdowns under such circumstances are inevitable and costly: as when the killing of a guard in the penitentiary's South Wing last October triggered a political controversy and a call for a $45 million penitentiary renovation program.

Yet there is hope that with three major prisons built since 1981, a $95 million prison under construction now in Somerset County and the penitentiary renovation in the pipeline, the state will have to build only one more prison before the aging, pacified baby boomers begin to file out of the nation's cells.

"I'm more optimistic today about solving this problem than I was two years, three years ago," Hughes said. ". . . When I first came into office and Kamka came in I think probably nobody really realized the magnitude and how long this overcrowding thing was going to continue." %What Happens After 1990?

Prison demographers predict that 1990 is the year when prison population will peak. After that, the issue may become: what to do with all the prisons?

The cycle of crowding will have come to an end, paving the way perhaps for another sequence of liberal philosophy followed by the hard-line approach and a rush to incarcerate.

It is this cycle, kept alive by politicians and the public, that many prison managers deplore. The ebb and flow of popular initiatives slowly grinds away at their efforts to establish a philosophy of corrections and consistent policy for carrying it out.

"When it comes to corrections, everyone is an expert," said Anthony P. Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association. "They have little faith in the professional, that the professional has an understanding of the totality.

"A policy has to be established. It must be the front line of defense. You can't waver from that policy and shotgun around for a solution. We have had that kind of planning in the past, and it has never led us anyplace."

NEXT: The politics of prison design