The 268 Center, a former church camp turned private prison, ran ads all weekend for staff to help care for 55 newly arrived prisoners from the District of Columbia.

But when applicants began eagerly phoning in, center officials were at a loss what to tell them, other than: call back tomorrow.

The center's uncertainty over such basic items as hiring staff and planning for the next meal for the D.C. inmates who are their sole customers symbolizes the national wavering over what role private prisons can play in caring for the incarcerated.

Since private prisons began appearing on the correctional scene about five years ago, partly in answer to widespread overcrowding at state and county-run facilities, questions have been multiplying as fast as the general prison population: Should the private prisons be regulated? Can their employes use force to prevent an escape or a riot? Can the government delegate its power to punish? Who is liable if an inmate is mistreated -- the government or the contractor?

A group of D.C. inmates moved into the center of the debate last weekend and the 268 Center became the latest battleground between supporters and opponents of private prisons. The minimum-security prison that opened in September in an isolated area about 50 miles north of Pittsburgh is fighting to hold on to the D.C. prisoners and to remain open while the state of Pennsylvania is battling to send them back.

Six hours before the buses even rolled into the facility early Saturday morning, a state judge banned them from the prison, but then he decided they could stay until 1 p.m. Tuesday. Today, the center filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law in an unorthodox attempt to keep the inmates.

Robert Hawk, an attorney for the center, said the center's owners believe that the action freezes an order by Commonwealth Judge David W. Craig of Pittsburgh to send the inmates back to D.C. The center's owners, he said, are defending the right to do business without undue interference by the government and are also trying to protect the inmates from being "shifted all over the place."

D.C. officials, stung by charges that they failed to tell Pennsylvania law enforcement officials of the inmate transfer, indicated today that the latest legal maneuver will not prevent Tuesday's scheduled return of the inmates.

The District, said Assistant Corporation Counsel Metcalfe King, is "as far as I know . . . under court order to remove the prisoners by 1 p.m." Tuesday. LeRoy Anderson, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said the inmates would leave the facility Tuesday morning, "right after breakfast."

Roland Page, deputy press secretary for Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh, said the bankruptcy action only makes the government's position against the center stronger. "If it's not financially viable, it has no business accepting prisoners from anywhere, certainly not from out of state."

Andrew Gordon, a deputy state attorney general who sought Craig's order, called the center's action "interesting" and "something different," but he said, "I can't imagine what they hope to gain by that."

Robert Gentzel, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the Pennsylvania State Police were informed by D.C. officials tonight that District correctional officers still plan to bus the inmates out of the center Tuesday morning.

D.C. officials refused to comment on how the return of the 55 inmates will affect the population at the D.C. Jail or what measures might be taken if the influx threatens to push the population over a court limit.

The city refused today for the fourth consecutive day to release population figures for the D.C. Jail, the city's eight facilities at Lorton Reformatory and D.C. halfway houses.

The population statistics are important because in its effort not to violate a court-ordered population ceiling at the jail, the D.C. Corrections Department has engaged in the wholesale transfer of inmates to overcrowded facilities at Lorton Reformatory, three of which also have court-mandated population limits.

A D.C. Superior Court judge Friday blocked the opening of an emergency facility near Capitol Hill that District officials hoped would take the overflow from the jail. Attorneys for neighbors opposed to that planned facility at 525 Ninth St. NE are seeking to intervene in the federal court action on the jail and are asking for a partial stay of U.S. District Court Judge William Bryant's Aug. 22 order setting a 1,694- inmate limit at the jail.

Meanwhile, the inmates themselves clearly prefer to stay in the 268 Center's two brick and concrete buildings in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, where the contours of the landscape contrast with the harsh signs of high unemployment. In interviews yesterday, they praised the center's roomy cells, catered food, friendly guards and relaxed atmosphere.

"It's like the difference between night and day," said Luther McGee, a 51-year-old inmate serving 14 months for receiving stolen property. "It doesn't feel like prison. It feels like camp. They even suggested that if things get better we could do some landscaping . . . . They give you a feeling of being a human being," McGee said.

"I would say 85 percent of us want to stay here," said Ronald E. Marshall, 39, who is serving 90 days for contempt of court in a child-support case.

The D.C. Jail by contrast "was built for chimpanzees," said a third inmate, serving time for driving with a suspended license. "The guards ignore everything you say; the place is filthy . . . . It was a nightmare for me."

Residents of the area near the center do not share the inmates' enthusiasm. Between 30 and 40 residents picketed across the street from the center over the weekend. Marjorie Crawford, one of the protesters, said, "We don't like them moving [out-of-state] prisoners in."

Proponents of private prisons argue that they can provide a humane and cost-efficient solution to overcrowding problems that have affected at least 32 states, along with the District. At least 10 companies are believed to have entered the field of "prisons for profit."

"Somebody has to be thinking about where to put these people," said Gary Taylor, director of the 268 Center. "I'm not saying privatization is the answer, but somewhere there has to be an answer, and if the public is not going to find it, who is?"

Bill Babcock, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a prison reform group, believes that private prisons can play a limited role but worries about unresolved legal issues.

If a private contractor should violate an inmate's constitutional rights, Babcock said, the government that contracted for the service would be held responsible. That was the case when the Immigration and Naturalization Service contracted with a firm to hold 12 illegal aliens in Texas, according to Babcock. One inmate was wounded and one was killed during an escape attempt, and a federal court found the government agency responsible, he said.

The issues become even stickier with out-of-state inmates. An agreement signed by most states provides that "only the government in charge" -- not contractors -- can send or accept inmates, Babcock said.

"The only advantage" of the 268 Center to Pennsylvania "is that it helps us with our own problems. I can't imagine why we would want anybody from D.C. We don't want to be a dumping ground."