The D.C. Department of Corrections suffers from "chronic managerial ineptitude," political interference and official inaction, according to a report submitted to the department that recommends the appointment of an outside manager to run the agency.

Conditions in the city's prisons are "squalid," the staff is "disgruntled, despondent and demoralized," and there is a "motif of prisoner self-regulation" and "a tolerance of drug smuggling and consumption," the study states in a blistering critique of the department's leadership and the condition of its prisons.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, comes in the midst of the latest prison-crowding crisis and questions the government's ability to solve the problem.

It makes 68 recommendations to improve management and safety and alleviate crowding, concluding that "the best way forward for the Department of Corrections would be the suspension of the present system of management and the designation of an outside manager . . . to carry out a thorough top-to-bottom reform of the District's penal system."

The 312-page report, "A Review of the Correctional Policies of the District of Columbia," was written by Sean McConville, professor of criminology at the University of Illinois in Chicago, whom prison experts here called a well-known criminologist who is becoming an authority on contemporary crowded prisons.

McConville, stressing that the report is a "preliminary draft" subject to revision, said the final version should be completed by the end of February. He said that about 10 copies have been distributed to city officials and others for review and comment, including two sent to the Department of Corrections on Dec. 16, where department spokesman LeRoy Anderson said the report is being "reviewed" by a corrections employe.

"I have never seen it. I didn't even know the report exists," corrections director James Palmer said on Friday when asked to comment on issues raised in the study. "If a report like that came in to me, you know damn well I'd read it."

Palmer first agreed to meet with a reporter about the study but later withdrew the offer, explaining, "I need to sit down and read it before I give you my reactions on it."

He said he was not interviewed by McConville, adding, "I have made more systematic changes in the Department of Corrections than you could even think about . . . . I eat, live and sleep corrections."

City Administrator Thomas Downs said he would not comment since he had not seen the report.

McConville declined to discuss the substance of the report, saying, "I owe it to the various heads of the departments to await their responses."

Alvin J. Bronstein, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, described McConville as "a well-known British criminologist and sociologist who has a good deal of experience in British corrections . He was a consultant to the British Home Office, which is equivalent to our Department of Justice, and did a number of studies for them on prison policy and planning."

Bronstein said of the report, "I agree with some of the things it suggests . I certainly agree with his findings that they are not competent to manage the system here."

Robert Johnson, a prison expert and professor of criminal justice at American University, said McConville "is becoming a central authority on contemporary crowded prisons" and is highly repected for his 1981 book "A History of English Prison Administration."

McConville, 42, said yesterday that he has studied prisons since graduating from Cambridge University in 1966 and has toured more than 100 prisons, including about 20 in the United States.

He said he began to study the D.C. corrections department in the summer of 1983 while a visiting senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and completed most of his research by late 1984. He said he conducted about 30 interviews with corrections officials, politicians, police officers, inmates, probation officers and local court officials, among others, and he said he visited the jail and Lorton Reformatory more than a dozen times.

The report is based almost solely on facts that are in the public record, McConville said. He said he undertook the study because he was "touched by the conditions of a lot of the prisoners at Lorton" and believed that, as a European, he could offer a fresh perspective.

"It's an academic report," he said. "I had an advantage in that I had no political ax to grind."

Palmer was not interviewed, McConville said, "because I really felt he has put his positions very clearly on the public record . . . . I studied Mr. Palmer's views in considerable detail."

The study began, the report says, after McConville visited the Lorton prison complex and was convinced that it was "one of the most troubled institutions that I had encountered in almost 20 years of prison visiting in many countries." He said, "I was struck by the idleness, the squalor and the pervasive air of menace and insecurity within the prison compound."

McConville provides examples of poor management. For example, the report points to the "slow and fumbled" start-up of prisoner self-help programs made possible by a special $22 million appropriation from Congress in 1984. The "lackluster" performance "clearly indicates a substantial weakness in leadership and management."

He pointed to the numerous lawsuits that inmates have won concerning poor living conditions, observing that "the District surely cannot afford to advertise weakness and inefficiency so conspicuously." The report cites a 1984 contempt of court ruling that fined D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Palmer and George Holland, then the assistant director of corrections, for violating a court-ordered population ceiling at the D.C. Jail.

"In other settings one would have expected to see resignations and dismissals following such severe censure of top personnel, and public comments which reflected so adversely and cuttingly upon personal performance and integrity," the report states.

The report recommends that future "major failures and demonstrable ineptitude . . . should be followed by resignations or dismissals at senior level and disciplinary action against junior officials."

The study suggests that city officials should "look for accomplished professional leadership when the time comes to review the position of some present incumbents."

The report, its research mostly conducted by late 1984, includes a "postscript" on developments through Sept. 30 1985, and offers a bleak assessment of the city's ability to cope with the continuing crowding problems.

The commission named by the mayor and the City Council to study building a new prison in the city was criticized as "unnecessary and irrelevant." The size and type of prison could have been decided in a few days by any competent penal expert, the report says. It calls the commission was a "time-honored political device of diverting political criticism and repercussion."

Barry's contention that, under the D.C. Code, the U.S. attorney general is responsible for housing the city's prisoners also came under attack.

"It is surely unfitting for a chief executive to insist that apparently everyone except his own administration has responsibility for developments in one of his own departments of government," the report states.

"The sad truth about the general approach of the Department of Corrections to matters of planning and strategy," the report says, "is that without the spur of court hearings and sanctions, the necessary energy, imagination and commitment of resources have been largely absent . . . . Once out of the turmoil of crisis, its leadership seems to slide into inertia."

The study was funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, the Washington Correctional Foundation and a token payment of about $1,200 from the corrections department, McConville said.