RAIFORD, FLA. -- In the old days, when convicts wore stripes and swung scythes on chain gangs and troublemakers were disciplined with beatings and meals of bread and water, the worst of the worst came here to the Rock, the notorious prison that gave meaning to the phrase "hard time."

The Rock has been closed since 1985, its old dull paint peeling, its cell doors hanging on hinges, a victim of age, litigation and changing attitudes about punishment and rehabilitation.

Yet many politicians around the nation, both Democrat and Republican, would like to see a return to the old days. Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush vows to make prisoners do "hard time" again, while legislatures in at least eight states have passed new laws denying prisoners amenities such as air conditioning, cable TV and weight rooms. And according to the polls, so would much of the public, weary of crime and sickened by images -- real or imagined -- of coddled criminals whiling away their curtailed sentences pumping iron and watching HBO.

But a visit to two prisons in Florida, which has one of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the country, offers a reality check. The old days are clearly gone, but most prisons, particularly the nation's state institutions where the majority of criminals do their time, are hardly country clubs.

Florida operates 46 major prisons and 38 work camps, housing more than 56,000 inmates, double the number of a decade ago.

Only eight prisons have air conditioning, and they were built in the 1970s or converted from other uses. All the prisons built in the last decade use only ceiling fans to cool the subtropical air. One prison for women has a swimming pool, left over from when the unit was a social service center.

Cable TV was unplugged last year. The VCRs and movies are gone too. More important -- and more punishing, the prisoners say -- Florida has virtually given up on rehabilitation. There is little opportunity at Florida prisons to learn a vocation or get a high school diploma because the funds have been cut. Almost three of four Florida inmates are functionally illiterate.

"I don't know anyone who has worked around prisons who thinks that they are easy," said Gordon Waldo, professor of criminology at Florida State University. "Even in the federal minimum security prisons people are still losing their liberty. Maybe it is the easiest life behind bars but it is still not very easy. And the state systems are much worse."

In place of the Rock, the Union Correctional Institution was built. It is a more modern prison, with mental wards, counseling staff, television sets, air conditioning, basketball courts and day rooms.

But Union Correctional remains a dangerous and deadening place, where homosexual rape and drug use are common and arguments are still settled with a homemade shiv or zip gun. There was a murder at Union on Tuesday. Another inmate was beaten recently with a weight. Correction officers say a newly arrived prisoner who seems weak is often "turned," made to serve as a stronger inmate's sexual partner.

"I don't see how they can make this place any worse," said Salvador Mustelier, serving 25 years at Union for first-degree murder. "I don't know. I guess they could beat us."

Union Correctional Institution still houses the worst of the worst: the violent career criminals, many serving sentences of 25 years or longer.

It is the policy in Florida that the most dangerous -- the killers, rapists and psychopaths -- work inside the fences, making license plates, fixing meals, doing laundry, picking up cigarette butts.

Those who can be trusted, such as the men at the nearby work camp at Columbia Correctional Institution, work outside in the communities, mowing grass along highways, patching potholes, cutting down trees at the elementary school. Prison officials estimate that working inmates, who also build Florida's prisons, provide counties and cities $25 million a year in free labor.

At Union, about 1,100 of the 1,800 inmates work. Those who do not are physically or mentally ill or are in 24-hour confinement. Many who do not work are housed in Union's crisis stabilization unit, where heavily medicated inmates, some in straitjackets, are confined in barren rooms, mumbling and screaming and coddling with soft crayons, some smearing their own feces on the walls.

Union also holds 330 men awaiting execution on Death Row, where they are confined to their cells 24 hours a day, allowed out only three times a week to shower and twice a week to exercise. They are the only prisoners in the system with their own television sets -- small, 13-inch black and whites. No cable TV.

The gray-skinned men on Death Row say they spend most of their time sleeping. A few paint or read Bibles and horror novels.

"I got here in the '60s, and they told me that was when it was easy, that the old days were even harder," said Marvin Johnson, sentenced to death for murder, who has been awaiting execution for years. Johnson recalls when inmates could be put in "the box," a small outdoor cell that guards closed off during the day, so the temperatures would rise to 110 degrees, and opened at night, so the mosquitoes could feed.

An additional 336 inmates -- whom Union Superintendent Dennis O'Neill dryly calls his "problem children" -- are locked up in confinement, punished for fighting, stealing, rape, assault and murder, crimes committed while in prison. Some of the inmates are also in confinement because they fear other prisoners.

O'Neill agrees that many of his inmates perform "make-work" jobs. But it is the best he can do. "Some of these boys have a hard time just picking up cigarette butts," he said. Moreover, his prisoners are not the kind of men society wants out working on the highways. Many are serving life sentences with nothing to lose.

"In the old days, they called themselves convicts, not inmates, and things were different," recalls Capt. Steven Richardson as he tours the grounds at Union. Convicts tipped their hats to the tough, thick-necked country boys with nicknames like "Dragline" who ruled as prison guards. Troublemakers were dealt with either by guards or convict orderlies.

"Now, we control them with this," Richardson said, holding up a pen. "Before it was violence, or the threat of it."

Prisoners rise at 5:30 a.m. They are counted. They eat food that is simple and loaded with carbohydrates. The fanciest meal they get is fried chicken, once every two weeks. There is no steak, no pork chops. There are lots of greens, beans and potatoes. No cold Cokes.

The majority of inmates at Union live two to a cell, 70 men in each dormitory. They are allowed a personal radio, which they must purchase themselves, and can listen only through headphones. The cells are spartan: a bunk bed, two footlockers, an open toilet. Each building has a color television set, which the 70 inmates can watch at certain hours. They can smoke cigarettes and circulate among themselves during the day.

Clifford McNair's job is "house man," which means he is responsible for cleaning the dormitory. He is serving 20 years, a habitual criminal, "for shooting at somebody."

"What do I do? I mop up and the rest of the day I sit around and look like a jerk," McNair said. Still, he recalls the Rock was even tougher. "That was a real prison," he said. "An infant could survive in this one."

Several of the older inmates, who indeed called themselves convicts, miss the old days of chain gangs. "Because in the old days, the convicts ran the prison and we knew it and they knew it," Richardson said. "There were rules. There were codes."

And the convicts were different. Many were lifelong professional criminals. Today more inmates are likely to be mentally ill. Many more are drug users and dealers.

When the men are not working, confined, counted or eating at Union, they can visit "the hut yard." The yard has a Ping-Pong table, handball and basketball court and free weights, not Nautilus machines. Many of the inmates know that the Florida legislature may soon take these weights away. It's a prospect correctional officers -- who believe physical exercise makes prisoners easier to control -- do not welcome.

Thirty miles away at Columbia Correctional Institution's work camp, 249 inmates live in two dorms, cooled only with fans. They sleep in open rooms, 65 inmates arranged on bunk beds. They have one TV set, but no weights, no classes. Instead, they work.

Each day, public work squads of 10 men each leave the camp and go out to mow grass and cut brush. None of the inmates on the work crews is a sex offender or convicted of violent crime. The correctional officers who guard them carry only a radio and handcuffs.

"You get tired of life inside the compound. Working outside gives you a glimpse of the world. It relieves the stress," said Lawton Hughes, a musician in for robbery.

Hughes and his fellow workers said the worst part of prison life is their inability to learn a trade or get an education.

"The public doesn't want us to do crimes and then come here and get a high school diploma. I can understand that. But the public has to realize that inmates are leaving the system with nothing to show," Hughes said. "They're worse when they leave."

"These prisons are constructed on the cheap, they don't have programs," said Randy Berg, an attorney with the Florida Justice Institute, which represents prisoners.

"There isn't enough money to fund educational programs. If you thought that prison was a great opportunity to turn a criminal around, then you would be wrong," Berg said. "If you thought there would be ample opportunity for education, drug and alcohol counseling, vocational training, there isn't any of those things in Florida prisons."