Return to Alcatraz? How about Devil's Island?

That may not be precisely what the House Armed Services Committee has in mind. But tucked away in the panel's report on this year's defense authorization bill is an unusual, if not altogether novel, idea for dealing with the prison overcrowding problem: Ship drug criminals off to "extremely remote Pacific islands."

The two islands that the committee has in mind are well known to Americans with a sense of history -- Midway and Wake islands. Midway, a 1-by-1.5-mile island, 1,150 miles northwest of Hawaii, was the site of one of the decisive U.S. naval victories during World War II. Wake, a three-square-mile atoll 2,300 miles west of Hawaii, was where President Harry S. Truman conferred with Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the height of the Korean War.

Since then, the tiny U.S. possessions have slipped back to obscurity, used by the Defense Department for emergency airfields and communications stations.

But given the "shortage of available space for convicted drug offenders," the congressional committee proposes turning the islands into drug prisons where inmates could be put to work.

"The convicted drug offenders could be required to accomplish the duties that contractors now perform," the commmittee said in its report on the $284 billion defense bill, which is scheduled to be voted on by the House this week. The report requests Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney to study the plan and report back by next March.

The idea is the brainchild of committee member Rep. Richard Ray (D-Ga.), who insists that sending drug criminals to faraway islands makes more sense than simply building more federal prisons. As Ray envisions it, the Pacific islands would be reserved for volunteers only; convicts who signed up to go would be promised a one-third reduction in their sentences.

"There's not much chance they're going to get anything but rehabilitated on two small islands like these," said Ray. "You can't go anywhere. . . . You won't be interrupted by families coming to visit every weekend."

Ray, who thought up the idea after visiting Midway and Wake during committee trips, said he recently outlined it to a group of local sheriffs, and to police chiefs in his district. "I got a standing ovation," he said. "They thought it was a great idea."

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment.

But some law enforcement experts acknowledged that Ray was indisputably correct on at least one point: The islands are isolated enough to deter any thoughts of escape. Neither has any native inhabitants. Midway, for example, is home to 12 U.S. military officers, 210 contractors, most of them Asians, and an estimated 1.5 million fowl -- led by the gooney birds, albatrosses best known for parking themselves in large numbers along the main runway that runs the entire length of the island.

But Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, called the idea "a giant step backward" -- a return to the days when the British shipped their hardened criminals off to Australia or the French sent their convicts to Devil's Island off the coast of South America. Leaving aside the likely exorbitant cost of flying prisoners and supplies back and forth, Sterling said the proposal reflects the all-too-common tendency to see drug criminals as "subhuman."

"This is astonishing," he said. "It takes penology back two centuries."