To those brought up on cop shows and old-time Westerns, the logic of jails might seem irrefutable: the inmates want to get out and the sheriff's job is to make sure they stay in.

But in Virginia, where controversy over the state's prison system has been brewing for more than a decade, such obvious notions quickly fall victim to a more confusing reality.

In Alexandria, Sheriff Michael E. Norris instructed police last week not to pursue arrest warrants issued for suspects who are not deemed highly dangerous because his jail is already more than 90 people over capacity. This is the sixth time Norris has had to issue such an order.

"It's happening with greater regularity. We don't like to do it, but we have no choice," he said.

In Fairfax County, Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins wants nothing more than to get rid of nearly 60 prisoners -- people he says don't belong in his jail in the first place.

"This is a deplorable situation, and it is asking for trouble if we continue," said Huggins.

The situation, which is mirrored at jails elsewhere in Northern Virginia, won't be changing any time soon, Huggins said, and in fact appears to be getting worse. The excess prisoners will remain in jail -- held there not only by armed guards and barred windows, but by a deadlock of politics, fiscal concerns and citizen attitudes to which Huggins does not hold the key.

Huggins and many other Virginia sheriffs blame the state Department of Corrections for much of their problem. The state, they charge, has been laggard in taking sentenced criminals out of local jails and into state prisons.

Critics of the sheriffs counter that the state system has all the inmates it can hold safely and that the sheriffs are attempting to make political hay out of a longstanding problem during a gubernatorial election year.

Nobody disputes that the crowding problem is real and that Northern Virginia has been affected by the numbers crunch as severely as any area in the state.

The situation has forced sheriffs to make decisions that run against their professional judgment.

The Fairfax County Adult Detention Center routinely has close to 400 inmates in confinement, even though its official maximum capacity is 315 -- forcing Huggins to have inmates sleep on floors and in rooms designed for counseling, library work and other purposes.

Huggins said he has about 60 prisoners who have been sentenced and should be in state prisons but are not. The backlog for the state system can last as long as 18 months, he said.

According to Huggins, the crowding increases the likelihood of violence in the jails, a statement with which his prisoners readily agree.

"You can cut the air with a knife," said Paul Duhamel Jr., serving a two-year burglary conviction in block B-17 of the Fairfax County jail, where last week nine inmates were housed in an area built for five.

In the Alexandria jail, most of which, unlike the Fairfax facility, is not air-conditioned, the sweltering temperatures recently have added to the tension, said Norris.

Huggins contends that citizens feel the heat of crowding, too -- when paying taxes. The state reimburses the county only $12.50 per day for keeping its prisoners, although actual costs are closer to $40 a day, he said.

Huggins and Norris, both Republicans, echo allegations made in Richmond recently by the Virginia State Sheriffs' Association, charging that the state corrections department has several hundred beds available, while about 900 sentenced inmates are held in local jails around Virginia waiting to get into the state system, nearly 370 of them sleeping on the floor.

Virginia corrections officials maintain that the state system is almost 700 prisoners over capacity itself. The only spaces it has available, they say, are "special purpose" beds used only for convicts on death row, those who are mentally impaired and others with unusual circumstances.

No state in the country places regular inmates in special purpose beds and to do so would be unsound institutional practice, a corrections spokesman said.

Huggins, chairman of a sheriffs' association liaison committee addressing the issue, says he is unconvinced.

"If [local sheriffs] have to bite the bullet, the state should, too," he said.

Norris agreed: "It is not up to us to worry about the state's prisoners. Local jails are not designed, equipped or staffed to do that, yet we're required to anyway."

Other officials in the sheriffs' association charge that Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb has ordered the state corrections department to remain below capacity until this year's gubernatorial race is over, a claim that Robb has denied. In their view, Robb calculates that the Democratic candidate, Gerald L. Baliles, will be vulnerable on prison issues because of last year's well-publicized escape of several prisoners from the state's Mecklenburg Correctional Center in Southside Virginia.

But another area sheriff, Democrat James A. Gondles of Arlington, contends it is people like Huggins who are manipulating the prison issue for partisan reasons.

"The state system has been backed up since before Charles Robb was governor and well before [Republican candidate Wyatt B.] Durrette was searching for issues to try to make himself governor," said Gondles, whose jail is averaging more than 20 prisoners above capacity this summer. "I'm annoyed that this issue has erupted now and I firmly believe politics is the reason. There's a lot of grandstanding going on here."

This year isn't the first time the prison issue has become mired in election-year politics, said Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan.

"These sheriffs have a legitimate gripe," he said. "But I just have an awful sense of deja vu and that's why I don't get too upset about all this. It's an easy issue to demagogue, and has been for a long time."

Norris and Huggins deny partisan motives, pointing out that the sheriffs' association is a heavily Democratic organization, with no reason to attack the governor.

"To have the state sheriffs give this much bipartisan support to opposing the state corrections department is surprising," said Norris.

But even such outspoken critics as Huggins and Norris concede there are other reasons besides the state prison system for the current backup in the jails.

"We in local governments didn't do enough to plan for the growth that we're having now," said Norris.

"During the '60s and '70s, everyone fell behind the population curve," agreed Horan.

Compounding these planning failures have been changing attitudes across the state -- related to a conservative political shift generally -- about the necessity of incarcerating criminals, local sheriffs said.

"More people are getting sent to jail and they are going for a longer time," said Norris.

But while citizens may laud tough sentences, that doesn't mean they are eager to pay for the prison construction to accommodate such policies. "The last nickel of every tax dollar is spent on prisons. Corrections simply has no political pizazz," said Horan.

Huggins, however, challenged the notion that prison construction is the political loser that most people assume it is.

"It's a costly proposition, there's no doubt about it," he said. "But people are willing to pay for it if they are presented with a clear choice" between building prisons or having criminals prematurely on the streets because of a lack of space.

Huggins pointed to new jail spaces opening throughout Northern Virginia as evidence that the public will support new construction when local jurisdictions take the initiative. Huggins criticized state politicians for not exerting similar leadership.

Prince William County recently opened a jail with an official capacity of 175 beds. A $2.1 million expansion of the jail in Arlington opened in June, giving that facility 44 new beds. Multimillion-dollar expansions, which will add 300 beds at the Fairfax jail and more than 200 at Alexandria, are under way.

But even as new jail beds open, some warn that the crowding issue is certain to continue.

"Jurisdictions that have tried to build their way out of problems have found that it is just not possible. If the space is available, the space will be filled," said Leonard Berman, an official with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a group based in Alexandria.

Berman urged Virginia officials to consider community service assignments as an alternative to incarceration for many prisoners in both local jails and state prisons.