WHEN Raymond K. Procunier, then commissioner of corrections for Virginia, visited the massively overcrowded New Mexico State Penitentiary in January 1980, he warned that officials were ''playing Russian roulette with the lives of inmates, staff, and the public.''
Tragically, Commissioner Procunier's warning came true. Within two weeks, 33 prisoners lay dead, and scores of other inmates and guards were injured in one of the worst prison riots the United States has known. Prison overcrowding, the state's attorney general later established, was a chief cause of the insurrection.
Overcrowding, one commissioner wrote, means inmates ''stacked three deep in cells designed for one . . . the dehumanizing daily experience of being forced to live in a 9-by-7 room with two total strangers, one of whom refuses to bathe and the other so emotionally disturbed that he cries most of the night.''
It means prisoners locked in their cells 23 hours a day, for months on end, because officials lack money or staff to run properly supervised programs. It means prisons where inmates outnumber staff by 300 to 1 - a not-unheard-of figure today, statistics show.
What to do about America's overflowing prisons? Possible solutions are emerging, and they need to be examined. For, while crime rates fall, prison populations keep on rising day by day.
In the six months that ended July 31, state and federal prison populations rose 3.9 percent, to an all-time high of 454,136, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported. That's the equivalent of about thirty 500-bed prisons in just six months, and existing prisons were already jampacked.
Federal, state, and local authorities have already appropriated $4 billion to build 93,000 new cells, says Anthony P. Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association (ACA), in Maryland.
The figures don't account for construction projects still in the talking stages - which he guesses will call for at least $2 billion in additional appropriations over the next three years - nor do they represent more than a fraction of the true cost of building prisons.
A new 400-bed prison, for example, costs about $20 million, a figure that more than doubles when financing costs are included. Operating expenses - perhaps $5 million annually - rack up another $150 million over the next 30 years. So a $20 million prison really represents about $200 million in basic outlays over its lifetime, plus lost-opportunity costs; that is, the lost revenues from inmates who might otherwise be paying taxes, support for inmates' families while they do time, and other social-service costs that drive the overall price tag even higher.
Left unchecked, the situation seems likely to worsen.
A year ago 27 states, as well as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia, were under court order to relieve overcrowding and to remedy other prison deficiencies. Lawsuits were pending in 10 additional states. And only two - Arkansas and Wyoming - had improved sufficiently to win release from prior injunctions, the American Civil Liberties Union reported.
Administrators often find it hard to communicate the severity of the problem to the public. When South Carolina Corrections Commissioner William D. Leeke spoke to a group about the threat of a federal takeover, one woman hailed the idea as a solution. ''I think that's wonderful,'' she told Mr. Leeke. ''Let's get the federal government to come in here and clean things up, the way they did in all those other states.''
''I told her that's not the way it works,'' Leeke says dryly. ''The federal government writes orders, not checks.''
Other factors to be reckoned with include the new sentencing codes being hammered out in many states. While legislators hope the new codes will lead to more impartial, certain, and evenhanded sentencing, they admit that the legislation will probably push prison populations still higher.
Authoritative projections cited by David Braunschneider, executive director of the International Halfway House Association (IHHA) in Virginia, indicate that prison populations will rise from a 1979 figure of 307,000 to 1.2 million in the year 2000. Construction costs will soar from an average of $30,000 per cell five years ago to $111,000 by the turn of the century, the IHHA estimates.
Numbers like these point to a need for what many say is a major rethinking not only of the nation's sentencing codes but of its sanction systems as well.
The states are taking an increasingly hard look at just who really needs to go to prison - and for how long. A highly publicized study by the Rand Corporation, which found that 20 percent of prison inmates commit 80 percent of the total group's crimes, was cited again and again in this reporter's talks with legislators and corrections professionals from around the nation.
Some say prisons should be reserved for violent and dangerous offenders. Other offenders could be channeled to less-expensive, community-based correctional programs.
''The call for retribution can't be allowed to put us into bankruptcy,'' says the ACA's Travisono.
New Jersey state Rep. Martin A. Herman (D), co-author of his state's new criminal code, agrees that not every crime calls for prison. ''I belong to the Gilbert and Sullivan school of criminal justice,'' Mr. Herman jokes: '' 'Let the punishment fit the crime.' '' He favors both new prison construction and increased community options. ''Everybody knows we have more criminals than we know what to do with,'' notes Herman, more soberly. ''We have to make more room at the inn. More people could be put in community programs if more space were available.''
Minnesota created more room at the inn when it passed its community corrections act in 1973, and that state's legislative leadership feels that progress has been made since that time. But they caution that community programs are not a cure-all for the system's ills.
''It's a more humane and sensible way to deal with many offenders'' says state Sen. Allan H. Spear (DFL), ''but you can't expect miracles.''
Minnesota state Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL) adds that community programs ''can help people structure their lives at less cost than incarceration.'' Educating the community, and building strong leadership coalitions are the means to overcoming community opposition, Senator Berglin says.
Even with the state's community corrections program, Minnesota's prison population has risen - partly in response to the state's new sentencing guidelines. But legislators claim that populations would have gone far higher without the new programs and that the costs would have been astronomical.
Not every state is willing to promote community options in order to compensate for the increased prison populations spurred by sentencing reforms.
South Carolina - which has long had the nation's highest per capita lockup rate, although it is only at the midpoint in a national comparison of crime rates - is less receptive to such programs, despite progressive new laws enacted by the legislature.
Commissioner Leeke maintains that ''about 25 percent of the people in prison could be dealt with safely in alternative programs, if (it were) not for the political pressures placed on legislators and judges by the public.''
LEEKE would like to see prison beds reserved for ''selective incapacitation'' of violent and chronic offenders. Property crimes, he says, should be punished by programs like work release and stiff new probation programs that often demand restitution to victims and public service. In South Carolina, Leeke says, community supervision costs only $400 per inmate per year, compared with around percent figure, but he asserts that progress has to come from judges, not the legislature. Mr. Evatt, now in his 11th year as a legislator, also heads the nonprofit, statewide Alston-Wilkes Society, a nationally respected social-service agency for ex-offenders and their families.
''We have every law we need,'' Evatt insists. He points to the state's community corrections act and its new early release plan, which is designed to cope with overcrowding. ''What we need are more creative judges, who will use things like restitution and probation,'' Evatt continues. ''Not harsher or more lenient: more creative. We haven't fully understood the worth of these programs.''
A broad-based coalition of South Carolina leadership groups is hammering out new sentencing guidelines, slated for discussion in the next session of the legislature. But by all accounts, the guidelines may drive prison populations even higher.
''The way it appears we're heading would eliminate a lot of parole and community options,'' says Circuit Court Judge Don Rushing, a former state senator, who until just recently was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. ''We don't want to continue overcrowding,'' he says, ''but the vast majority of the public wants to know how long people are to be in prison.''
Judge Rushing's comments articulate views held by many - not just in South Carolina. But there is no consensus on the issue, even among conservatives.
Texas, with its own prison population nearly as large as that of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and all of Canada combined, is one hard-line state that engineered a stunning turnaround in its correctional policies and priorities.
In the 1984-85 biennium, the state allocated $187.3 million for probation and parole services, including $33 million for halfway houses - up from $97.3 million the last time around. Corrections, meanwhile, received $620.8 million for the new biennium, up only slightly from the previous two years. What triggered Texas' about-face, a legislative source says, was the corrections department's budget request - for $1.5 billion, $650 million of which was slated for prison construction.
''It set a few heads reeling around here,'' says Mel Hazlewood, counsel to the Senate State Affairs Committee, which oversees corrections. State Sen. Ray Farabee, a Democrat, says he anticipated a backlash to the new plan, ''but it never came. We already have some of the longest sentences going,'' says Mr. Farabee, who was surprised at how much corrections-related legislation did go through last year.
The new bills range from a Farabee-sponsored revision of Texas' notorious ''habitual-offender statute,'' under which petty criminals could - and did - receive life sentences if they repeated their crimes, to an early-release plan that would bring certain types of offenders up for parole consideration when the prisons reached 95 percent of capacity.
One especially far-reaching change lies in legislation designed to increase outside control over the corrections department. The new law, Mr. Hazlewood says , creates a criminal-justice coordinating council, designed to ''mesh the gears'' among the various branches of the justice system, and a criminal-justice policy council, designed to ''monitor and accelerate policy development.''
To these changes was added the departure of William J. Estelle, who resigned in the middle of the controversy surrounding his department.
His replacement is Raymond K. Procunier, the former Virginia commissioner, who is expected to have less of a free hand in running the department than did Mr. Estelle. But ''the Legislature and corrections board will be riding herd over (corrections),'' says Mel Hazlewood.
''It's a new day in Texas."