He's hearing that it's unconstitutional and that it's futile, but Virginia's new governor, Gerald L. Baliles, is pressing forward with his million-dollar plan to make Virginia's prisoners literate before they are set free.

Another educational-vocational program in District of Columbia prisons is foundering. An elaborate and expensive plan sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) got mired in the bureaucratic incompetence and favoritism that afflict so many enterprises in the nation's capital.

The prisoners at Lorton rendered a verdict of sorts about the "Specter initiative" by burning down the computer repair center, the finest facility in the $41 million undertaking.

Baliles is undeterred.

Requiring prisoners to read at a sixth-grade level before granting parole is a personal project of his. It came to him during a campaign stop at the Powhatan Correctional Center, where he saw a roomful of inmates watching television.

Why weren't any of them reading, he asked the warden. Some of them couldn't, the warden told him. Why didn't they go to school and remedy this basic lack? Because, it was explained to him, the peer pressure makes someone who admits this embarrassing failure and goes to class a "sissy" in the eyes of the guys in his cell block.

Baliles has been an addicted reader all his life. When the bookmobile came around to his small corner of rural Patrick County, he prevailed upon his two brothers to borrow 15 books apiece which, with his own, gave him the riches of 45 books until the bookmobile rolled around again. He reads at least three books a week, mainly history, biography or current affairs. His current enthusiasm: Gavin Wright's "Old South, New South."

To counter the humiliation of admitting they can't read, Baliles has introduced the element of self-interest. A prisoner's parole board will be notified if the prisoner who reads below the sixth-grade level is -- or is not -- participating in the literacy program.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Watergate prosecutor and head of the Advisory Board on D.C. Prisons, says that to keep a prisoner in jail because he cannot read is "unconstitutional." A Watergate-convicted conspirator, turned prison preacher, Charles W. Colson, whose views about the violation of civil liberties are of limited value because of his own violations during the Nixon years, agrees with Ben-Veniste.

Says former prosecutor Ben-Veniste, "Baliles is fine to give incentives, but it is an impossible standard to apply -- those people are not sentenced to go through a reading program; to keep them in because they don't goes too far."

Baliles counters that parole is a privilege, not a right, and that nobody incapable of reading would be kept in jail beyond the length of the sentence. He points out that parole boards also routinely take into account whether drug-abusers and alcoholics take part in rehabilitation programs.

Just because the program is called "No-read, no-release" does not mean that a participant failing to master the A-B-Cs would be locked up until he could. Prisoners with emotional or mental problems which keep them from learning to read would be excused. The testing is going on now.

"You have to break into the vicious cycle of the revolving door of prisoners," says Baliles. "The recidivism rate in Virginia is about the national average -- 35 percent return. About 38 percent of our 10,000 prisoners are functionally illiterate. Sixty-three percent don't have a high-school diploma. I think we should give them the basic tools so they can read job applications and simple instructions. I know a lot of programs haven't worked before. But you have to try."

Participating prisoners who go to school will, in addition to getting time off, be paid at their usual workrate. It is hoped that this will make them less susceptible to jeers from peers who tell them they could be making money instead of going to class.

Truancy will be punished. In fact, the prison school will be run like the schools that so many of them skipped. Additional teachers trained in adult education will be hired. Baliles reports that many retired teachers from all over Virginia have applied to help. They would serve as tutors to individual inmates. Literate prisoners will get points for coaching the new students.

Baliles is proceeding slowly and cautiously, as is his style. Once the test results are in, he hopes to have classes start in late August.

Charles K. Price, director of Correctional Education, says that early reactions from prisoners are mixed. Some say, "This is a great thing, I can get out earlier," and others say, "What's new?"

What's new from the Old Dominion is a rehabilitation program with a real kick in it.