Up until the last minute, when they disappeared over the hill in navy blue buses, the 55 D.C. inmates who spent the weekend in a private prison here acted as lightning rods for the emotions of the surrounding community.

They reignited smoldering debates over prison jobs versus public safety, rehabilitation versus punishment and public responsibility versus the right to defend one's own back yard.

They were alternately vilified and complimented, rejected out of hand and welcomed with open arms.

Behind the security fence of the 268 Center, a former church camp that opened in September as a private, minimum-security prison, they drew praise as "perfect gentlemen" and "the nicest bunch of guys to be locked up that you could ask for."

A number of the center's guards showed up on their own time while the sky was still dark this morning to shake hands with and wave goodbye to the inmates, who constituted the center's sole business in two months, on their way back to the D.C. Jail. Afterward, they sat glumly in the center's dining room lamenting what they see as the hysterical reaction of both the community and Pennsylvania officials to minor offenders and the loss of the paychecks that the inmates would have brought them had they been allowed to stay.

"This is taking the food out of my kids' mouths," said Paul Sherry, chief of security for the center, who predicted that to find another job he will have to leave the area, which has been hit hard by closings of steel mills and coal mines.

Outside the center, the inmates constituted a reason for men to switch from night shifts to days, for residents to prop loaded shotguns against their doors, and mothers to hurry home so the children who attend an elementary school just down the road would not be alone and unprotected.

A half-dozen nearby residents took their accustomed place on the other side of the road from the center early this morning with the intention of cheering the inmates' departure.

"I've got a 10-year-old, I kid you not, that doesn't sleep," said Joan Farster, who lives "just over the hill. I wanted to see this with my own eyes, just to make sure they left."

"Too bad, guys," shouted Jim Baker, who leads a group called Citizens for Community Awareness against the prison, when a few guards stepped out of the center's front door. "Unemployment tomorrow."

Members of the group object to the fact that the private prison, the only one in the state, is not licensed or regulated, that its owners are under no obligation to tell the community who is being housed there and that some of its guards have only limited training.

They also argue that caring for the incarcerated is by its nature a job for the government, not private business, and that a prison is particularly dangerous in their area because there is no local police force.

The controversy is as virulent as any longtime residents can remember, and the weekend visit by D.C. inmates intensified it. Gary Taylor, the center's director, said he had to send one supervisor home last night when his wife called, sobbing over a threatening phone call. Another guard said a man came up to him at the local Eagles club and vowed to kill him "if anything happened to one of his children or one of his family."

Protesters took pictures of the guards going into the center, but found Sherry, the security chief, out with his camera, snapping their pictures for a class-action suit he said the center's employes hope to file against the state and Citizens for Community Awareness for loss of wages. When protesters held up signs that read "No Private Prisons in Pa.," inmates put up a sign in the center's window that read "We Love It Here."

Philip Tack, one of the center's owners, said he believes the D.C. group drew more heat than the previous 32 inmates who came to the center from nearby county jails because they were all blacks. The community, a mix of trim homes and exhausted shacks with televisions and refrigerators on the front porches, is almost entirely white.

But Baker said race "has nothing to do at all with the issue," adding "that makes me furious that they would even bring anything like that into this." Instead, protesters argued that the D.C. inmates were convicted of more serious crimes than previous inmates.

And in at least one case, they were apparently right. Though officials from the District and from the center said the inmates had been convicted only of misdemeanors, one inmate's court records, checked by a law-enforcement official in the District, show he was serving time for the felony of receiving stolen property.

The storm over their presence drew the D.C. inmates and the center's employes strangely close. The inmates applauded Taylor when, fatigued and frustrated almost to tears, he called them together in the gym last night to tell them that they would be bused out in the morning, but that the center would continue its legal battle and hoped to get them back.

In compensation, Taylor allowed the inmates to play volleyball until 3 a.m. In the morning, the inmates folded their blankets and cleaned the dining room after breakfast as a sign of appreciation for a place that one described as a "castle" compared with the jail.

One inmate called out "keep trying" as D.C. correctional officers led him out of the center this morning. Then with short, awkward movements, feet and hands shackled, he pulled himself up the steps into the waiting bus.