One sheriff, only half joking, said he may have to start handcuffing prisoners to telephone poles. Judges around the state are considering freeing prostitutes and defendants awaiting trial to make more room for convicted felons in local jails. And in Chattanooga's Hamilton County, three criminal court judges threatened last week to halt criminal cases indefinitely.

Like several other states, Tennessee has been overendowed with convicts for some time, and their numbers are increasing by more than 100 a month. But when a federal judge two weeks ago shut off the flow of new inmates into the state's packed and antiquated prisons, stunned officials had not seen the worst of it.

Last summer, four state prisons were rocked by riots, attributed in part to crowding. Last month, more than 400 new inmates at three state prison "reception centers" were sleeping on cots in day rooms, offices and a gym. Now the inmate backlog is building in local jails pressed for space and money, several in jurisdictions under court order to reduce jail crowding.

Saying he was fed up with state officials' foot-dragging, "ignorance" and "indifference," U.S. District Court Judge Thomas A. Higgins ruled Oct. 23 that only prisoners certified by the corrections commissioner as "severe security risks," such as psychopaths and those sentenced to death, will be admitted to the state's lockups.

Among other things, the crisis has tarnished the political image of Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander, who has attracted the national spotlight with his education and industrial development initiatives. Now chairman of the National Governors' Association, Alexander is nearing the end of his second term and cannot succeed himself, but he is considered a GOP comer.

The crisis also has stirred partisan backbiting and blame-shifting as the General Assembly opens a long-scheduled special session called by Alexander to deal with the prison issue.

Alexander rode a prison scandal into office in 1979, with state and federal authorities arranging to swear him in to his first term three days early to prevent outgoing Gov. Ray Blanton from commuting any more sentences after reports that Blanton had ordered commutations or pardons for 24 convicted murderers and 28 other inmates.

Two members of Blanton's legal staff had been charged with extortion and conspiracy to sell pardons, paroles and commutations, and Blanton, now serving a three-year sentence in a federal prison in Lexington, Ky., had been informed that he was under investigation. That scandal is the subject of a new movie, "Marie: A True Story."

The present crisis here is reflected in prisons elsewhere. Eight state corrections systems have been taken over by the courts, 25 others are partially controlled by the courts.

This is in part the result of a paradox of public opinion. Politicians repeatedly have responded to demands to "get tough on crime" only to find that their constituencies had disappeared when it was time to pay the high costs of getting tough.

The proportion of the U.S. population in prison is at an all-time high -- doubling in 10 years while the nation's population grew just 10.5 percent.

Corrections is widely viewed as a "no-win" political issue, a choice between raising taxes to pay for more prison space or letting criminals go free. Corrections experts say some office-holders prefer to let the courts shoulder the blame, even though it means the courts call the shots.

In 1982, Higgins' predecessor on the case, Judge L. Clure Morton, ruled that Tennessee's prison conditions violated the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered them reformed. The state agreed to let out at least 50 more prisoners than it took in each month until their numbers were reduced to the court-ordered 7,019.

Last April, the state said it could not comply. Higgins gave the state until Dec. 31 to reduce the prison population. In June, a court-ordered study attacked Alexander's "Correction Plan for the '80s," which canceled prison counseling and education programs, and urged that it be "scrapped."

Frank Wood, a veteran Minnesota prison warden called in by the court, said in the study that taxpayers and voters need informed leadership, not "policy-makers who blindly follow the politically aroused prejudices of the masses or the politically motivated rhetoric of what some call a lame duck in the executive branch who may or may not be aspiring to higher political office."

After unveiling a revised corrections plan in September, Alexander left on a month-long trip to Russia, China and Japan, while the legislature's Special Joint Corrections Committee tore the plan to pieces and forced officials to withdraw parts of it.

Last month, Alexander administration officials tried, in a three-hour hearing before the fateful ruling, to persuade Higgins that the governor and the General Assembly were prepared to act. But the judge snapped, "They haven't acted until the heat's gotten on them." He said the situation had come this far -- with 700 prisoners too many -- because "the state has been indulged time and time again" by the court.

Higgins lambasted state officials from the bench for persisting in a "state of ignorance" about prison problems and "reckless indifference" to their sworn duty to provide safe, comfortable prisons.

Some Democratic legislators complained that they should not have been included in the judge's criticism. Some suggested that because he is a Reagan appointee, Higgins was trying to let Alexander off the hook. They noted that legislators have funded all the corrections budgets recommended by Alexander and previous governors.

State Sen. Bob Rochelle, a Democrat who chairs the joint House-Senate committee on corrections, said, "The committee and the leadership have tried to steer the discussions away from just cussin' judges" and into constructive channels. But he added, "The judge's ruling probably messed things up some, because he made some statements that generated the finger-pointing."

House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter, a Democratic candidate for governor, called the judge's ruling a responsible alternative to ordering the mass release of inmates. But he and other Democratic legislators have reacted cautiously to the governor's most recent proposals.

Alexander said last week that he will propose a 5-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes to help cover the costs of his $175 million prison reform package, including $113 million for building new facilities. He proposes to pay for the overhaul through normal revenue growth, using $78 million in surplus revenue and selling $22 million in bonds.

He has called for two 500-bed maximum-security prisons to be built by private firms, thus saving $100 million in capital outlays. Rochelle, citing the importance of improved management, said that the state's prison system had failed so badly, and Alexander's original corrections plan was "considered so ill-advised and ridiculous within the corrections community," that Tennessee has trouble hiring competent managers from out of state.

The administration proposals under consideration by the legislature include a controversial early release program for well-behaved inmates, more money for local jails housing state prisoners, a reduction in the mandated sentences for certain crimes and various forms of sentencing alternatives to prison.

A proposal by a private firm to take over the Tennessee prison system is up in the air. While several officials have expressed misgivings about it, Rochelle cited some support for private management in certain areas such as information handling.

In a televised speech to the legislature last night, Alexander reaffirmed most of his newest proposal and said the present situation came about because the state had other priorities. "Some have suggested that I, and some of you here, have spent so much time working for schools, healthy children, better jobs and cleaner water that we forgot better prisons. Guilty," he said.

"Furthermore, I'd make the same choice again. I think you would, and we should."

He said he was "greatly intrigued" with the privatization proposal, and had "absolutely no philosophical hangups with it."