Sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn't it? Every inmate in the Virginia prison system is to learn to read, and no one will be paroled into the community until he does. Gov. Baliles has announced that this will be the policy of his administration, and he has asked the Department of Corrections and the parole board to work out the details.

There is little doubt that employability, self-respect and a sense of personal security in the modern world are all related to literacy, or that prisoners who leave an institution without being able to read stand little chance of earning a decent living through honest work. The governor's goal, therefore, is a laudable one, and he deserves support in his efforts to allocate new funds to prison education projects. Imposing what amounts to a penalt for failing to learn, however, is a matter for second thoughts.

It would not be surprising if adult literacy programs with this hard-core population turned out to be very expensive and occasionally unsuccessful. A man who hasn't learned to read by the time he is 20 or 25 may be a difficult pupil. The pupil-teacher ratio needed in these circumstances will have to be low and the stamina, dedication and skill of the teachers, high. But whatever the cost of a prison literacy program, money is well spent in this effort. The legislature should give the governor the wherewithal to do the job.

Even with the best program in the world, though, some prisoners will not learn to read. The program must be flexible enough to take this into account and to provide alternative training to those who remain illiterate. Denial of parole would be a harsh penalty in the case of a cooperative, diligent prisoner who simply does not have the ability to learn. There are also real questions of fairness to be considered when a parole condition is imposed which some inmates, through no fault of their own, will never be able to meet. Even conceding that illiteracy cannot be a bar to release at the completion of a sentence, denial of parole for this reason might well be challenged on equal-protection grounds.

Gov. Baliles clearly has the right goal in mind. His proposal still needs more thought on what kind of incentives will produce results. But using prison time to teach reading and job skills makes sense. So does putting money and support behind the idea.