District inmates are entitled to the same standard of medical care as private patients, a unanimous three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals said yesterday.

Advocates of prisoner rights immediately praised the decision as a bench mark and said it may be the first time an appellate court has specifically said inmate medical services should be comparable to those in the community. The quality of inmate medical care in the District is the subject of several class action suits pending in federal court.

"The fact that negligence and malpractice are alleged to have taken place in a jail makes no difference," Judge John M. Ferren wrote for the majority in a case involving a Lorton Reformatory inmate who argued that District medical officials were negligent in treating his postoperative wound.

Bobby Lee Mitchell, the inmate, had been awarded $50,000 by a D.C. Superior Court jury in June 1984, but the trial judge threw out the verdict after finding that the inmate's expert medical witness was not knowledgeable about medical care at other penal institutions.

"We disagree with the court's premise that physicians who serve a prison population may be held to a standard of care different from the one imposed on physicians in other contexts," Ferren wrote in reversing the judge's decision and sending the claim back for another jury trial.

"The fact that {the inmate} was a prisoner provides no excuse for these physicians to treat him differently from other patients," the judge wrote.

In the same decision, the appellate panel upheld the jury's award of an additional $250,000 to the inmate involving a different claim. The inmate had sued the District for separate incidents involving an assault by another prisoner and injuries suffered when he was hit by a falling ventilation cover.

City officials said they had not seen the ruling and were unable to comment. One city attorney, however, said the District was not in favor of a lesser standard for prisoner care, but that judges and juries should take into consideration realistic limitations, such as fewer available doctors, faced by prisons.

The ruling follows a string of legal and financial setbacks to the District's correction facilities in the past two months. Three different D.C. Superior Court juries have awarded District inmates a total of more than $2 million in civil verdicts in that period.

Prisoner rights advocates said yesterday that the ruling appeared to reach beyond the landmark 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring prison authorities to provide medical treatment to inmates.

"It may be the first time a court has said that the bench mark for delivery of medical services is what people get out in the community," said Ed Koren of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents prisoners in two of the pending federal suits.