Four days before the 1988 presidential election, Bureau of Prisons Director J. Michael Quinlan personally ordered a federal prisoner be placed in special detention and barred from talking to reporters about allegations that the prisoner had once sold marijuana to now-Vice President Quayle, according to a Bureau of Prisons lawyer's letter disclosed in federal court this week.

In a letter to a lawyer representing convicted drug smuggler Brett C. Kimberlin, Bureau of Prisons regional counsel Carolyn A. Sabol confirmed that during the week before the election, officials at the Federal Correctional Institute in El Reno, Okla., twice placed Kimberlin in a special detention cell -- the first time on Nov. 4 under direct orders from Quinlan.

Kimberlin was removed from the special punishment cell the next day. But on the morning of Nov. 7, election eve, Kimberlin was again placed in detention, this time to prevent him from calling reporters who had assembled at a Washington hotel to hear his story, according to Sabol's letter.

Sabol wrote that Kimberlin was attempting to "misuse the telephone" and violate prison rules relating to news media contacts. But in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court here, Kimberlin charges that Quinlan and former Justice Department spokesman Loye W. Miller Jr. conspired to silence him in an effort to protect the Republican ticket of George Bush and Dan Quayle.

The defendants "intentionally caused . . . Kimberlin to be placed repeatedly into detention for the purpose of stifling his attempts to communicate with the press about a matter of public interest and for the purpose of retaliating against Kimberlin for such attempts," states the lawsuit filed by Howard T. Rosenblatt, a lawyer with the firm of Arnold & Porter who is representing Kimberlin.

Bureau of Prisons spokeman Greg Bogden said he could not comment because the agency had not received a copy of the complaint. But in her June 19 letter to Rosenblatt, denying an earlier administrative tort claim by Kimberlin, Sabol disputed the charges and stated that the detentions were implemented "according to applicable Bureau of Prisons policy."

Kimberlin is serving a 50-year sentence for drug smuggling and participating in a series of 1978 bombings in Speedway, Ind., that earned him the nickname "the Speedway Bomber." During the last few weeks of the 1988 campaign, he called several news organizations to allege that he had smoked marijuana with Quayle at a fraternity party in Bloomington, Ind., in 1971 and then sold him the drug more than a dozen times over the next few years.

Kimberlin never offered any corroboration for his story, and no major news organization reported it prior to election day. "The vice president has never used marijuana or, to his knowledge, met Brett Kimberlin," David Beckwith, Quayle's press secretary, said yesterday.

Nevertheless, Kimberlin's contacts with reporters were known to have been closely monitored by top officials of the Bush-Quayle campaign after the campaign received inquiries from several news organizations. In addition, Kimberlin's treatment by federal prison officials has been reported in several publications and has raised questions about the constitutional rights of inmates.

The lawsuit alleges that Quinlan intervened in the matter on Nov. 4, 1988, after learning that officials at El Reno had given Kimberlin permission to hold a news conference because he was being "deluged" by requests from reporters. Quinlan ordered the news conference canceled. Then, he ordered Kimberlin's detention -- a step Sabol said was taken to "protect his physical safety."

Sabol said the action was based on information from Miller, who she said had been told by National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg that she had talked to Kimberlin by telephone and that he "feared for his safety." But Totenberg said yesterday it is "absolutely, categorically untrue" that she ever made such a comment to Miller and that "it was very clear to me they were looking for an excuse" to prevent Kimberlin from talking to reporters.

"I just don't feel I should get into this," said Miller, who is now a press spokesman with the Northrop Corp., when asked for comment.