NEW YORK, OCT. 24 -- The nation's prison system is plagued by "institutional racism" and jails blacks at the same rate as South Africa, the city's police commissioner, Benjamin Ward, said in a speech.

Addressing an organization of black and Hispanic prison workers Friday evening, Ward called racism "as American as apple pie." He cited statistics showing that blacks and Hispanics in the United States are incarcerated at a rate nine to 10 times higher than that of whites.

"America incarcerates whites in state and federal prisons at about the same rate as Western Europe and incarcerates blacks at about the same rate as South Africa," the city's first black police commissioner told members of Minorities in Corrections, a group of state prison employes attending a two-day conference.

Ward's speech was not announced to the news media, but a reporter for the New York Post attended the conference. The commissioner could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Ward, 61, known for his controversial comments on race relations in New York City, headed the city's jails and the New York state prison system before taking over as police commissioner of the country's largest police force three years ago.

He blamed the racial discrimination in the criminal justice system on "institutional racism" rather than "individual racism."

Most people "can truly deny being individual racists," he said. "But few criminal justice institutions and probably no correctional institutions can truthfully deny institutional racism."

The address touched a responsive chord in the state prison workers, who honored Ward with the organization's highest award today.

"Mr. Ward's remarks raise problems about the entire criminal justice system, from arrest to incarceration," said Cecil Canton, who takes over as president of the organization in November.

Mayor Edward Koch, a fervent supporter of Ward, did not comment on the substance of the speech, but commended him for his courage.

"One may disagree with Commissioner Ward on the facts, but you have to admire him," Koch said today. "He speaks his mind and says things people don't want to hear."