SUMMERTIME CAN be especially tense in jails and prisons, as corrections officials in this region can attest. Last year riots and escapes in Virginia forced members of Gov. Robb's administration to look for better responses. In Maryland, too, state officials who had opposed expansion of the prison system took a good second look four years ago when 26 work-release prisoners were arrested on scores of charges including murder, assault and narcotics violations. Now Gov. Hughes is watching over a large bricks-and-mortar operation. The District's mayor, Marion Barry, originally a strong opponent of any plan to build a new prison in the District, has seen the political light as well as federal money -- and is looking for quick agreement on a site and plan.

In all three jurisdictions -- anywhere, for that matter -- these decisions to improve and/or expand corrections facilities are politically delicate. After all, there isn't much to like about prisons -- and when they're suddenly bursting at the seams with inmates, the question becomes whether to build more or to come up with alternative facilities and programs for certain categories of lawbreakers. The best answer? Both.

But just as Virginia, Maryland and the District appear to be moving on both fronts, it turns out to be only a matter of time before prison populations everywhere peak -- leaving officials wondering what they'll do with all that extra prison space. That problem should be alleviated somewhat by the fact that prisons -- unlike, say, public schools -- won't have very many sentimental residents pleading to keep them open when the time comes to close them.