EDITOR'S NOTE - A pioneer in so much else, California now leads the nation in enthusiasm for imprisonment. Since the 1980s, a burst of building - with stiffened penalties to match - has produced the largest penal system in the Western world. With America cringing over crime, many people believe more prisons and longer sentences are the answer. The first installment of the three-part series ''America Behind Bars'' takes a hard look at one state finding out if that's true.

Undated (AP) _ By ARLENE LEVINSON Associated Press Writer

FOLSOM, Calif. (AP) - For most car-hopping Californians, many of the state's new prisons are within an easy Sunday drive. Some are clustered in an arc around Sacramento, others spill down the valley spine of California and along the coast and borders with Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

The prison tourist soon recognizes their outline on the horizon.

These new prisons appear untouched by human hands, with flat walls of milky gray concrete punctuated by rows of skinny windows in pairs, like eyes. High curtains of wire fencing are topped with razor wire and punctuated by 30-foot guard towers.

Forget the Hollywood sign, cable cars, the redwoods. The symbol of California at the millennium is a computer-designed lockup.

Twenty-eight prisons dot the California landscape, commonplace as Kmarts. Another 12 had been planned by century's end, but the state's new ''three strikes, you're out'' law will require 20 more instead.

The inmate population: 120,000 and counting, at an average cost of $24,000 per prisoner per year.

For that kind of investment, you'd expect some assurance that prisons work. But the fact is, no one has proved prisons curb crime at all.

For Craig Brown, the state's undersecretary for Youth and Adult Corrections, it's easy: Citizens should be pleased. ''There's 120,000 people,'' he says, ''who are not hurting them or stealing from them today in California.''

But such reassurance comes at a price.

When the state budget was adopted last year, only corrections spending grew; its allotted $2.8 billion eclipsed the $2.6 billion for the University of California system.

Similar contrasts can be found elsewhere. They may become sharper, as more public money is devoted to putting more lawbreakers away - and for longer - to solve what seems like an intractable American problem.

For the first time in U.S. history, criminal justice spending per capita exceeds that for education nationwide, according to a study by William Chambliss, a sociologist at George Washington University.

''At this rate, we will be seeing an even greater increase in the number of people in prison and a higher incidence of illiteracy,'' said Chambliss, a former president of the American Society of Criminology. ''We're trading textbooks for prison cells.''

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The folks in Folsom do not advertise their prison complex. When a second, sleeker prison opened in 1986, unsentimental neighbors insisted the state plant trees to block the view.

But behind green hills where cattle graze and wild deer step lightly, live about 7,800 criminals, spread among old Folsom prison, the newer California State Prison-Sacramento and a third facility for parole-breakers.

The three facilities serve as a kind of concrete-and-razor-wire history of California prison explosion.

''The California system used to be the model correctional system in the '60s,'' said Professor Alfred Blumstein, an authority on prisons at Carnegie Mellon University. ''It was very sophisticated about how it made decisions. ... It had the appropriate mix between community-based programs (and prisons). It was very innovative.''

Then, baby boomers came of criminal age in the late 1960s and into the '70s, and crime surged. Like other Americans, Californians lost faith that the world could be made safer if criminals - and the fractured world that spits them out - got more kind attention.

Savvy office-seekers of the '70s peppered speeches with references to ''law and order.'' In 1977, the state penal code switched the focus from rehabilitation to punishment.

Later, more than 1,000 new crime laws were enacted. Most either lengthened sentences or reclassified misdemeanors as felonies - among them, domestic violence, all burglaries, drunken driving, rape and using a gun in a crime.

But where to put all the new lawbreakers?

By the end of the 1970s, only 12 prisons existed, housing 22,000 men and women. In a frenzy, California embarked on the largest prison-building project in U.S. history: $5.2 billion to put up a projected 40 prisons.

Still, some people have had second thoughts.

Seeking options, state lawmakers in 1987 created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Inmate Population Management. Three years later, the panel recommended more alternatives, such as probation with intensive supervision, giving more money and responsibility to counties to deal with nonviolent offenders, and expanding drug treatment.

The proposal went nowhere.

''The electorate doesn't want these things,'' said Brown, the corrections undersecretary. ''The electorate wants prisons. They want people locked up.''

In March - in the wake of the arrest of Richard Davis, a violent parolee accused of stealing 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her bed in Petaluma and killing her - Gov. Pete Wilson added to the state's commitment to imprison by signing the ''three strikes'' law.

Now, anyone who commits two violent crimes faces 25 years to life if convicted of a third serious felony, whether rape, murder, a house burglary or a drug sale.

''It sends a clear message to repeat criminals: Find a new line of work because we're going to start turning career criminals into career inmates,'' Wilson declared in triumph.

Analysts expect a total of 80 state prisons will be needed within 30 years to house those anticipated 276,000 ''career'' inmates.Projected costs are staggering: $21 billion for construction, with yearly operating costs reaching $5.7 billion.

It's a worry for a state facing a probable $6.1 billion deficit in the $55 billion budget for the coming fiscal year - a deficit that has had ruinous effects on other social spending.

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It is certain that there will be more cells and more prisoners like Anthony Stephens. In age, criminal history and prospects, he is typical of the lawbreakers the state's system snares.

Stephens, an amiable 24-year-old car thief from Los Angeles, stopped to talk briefly in the prison welding shop, where he was one project shy of a pipe-welding certificate and eager to finish. In a few weeks, he'd be paroled and need work.

''Prison, for me, I would call a stepping stone,'' Stephens said. He'd parlayed a juvenile conviction for a $20 sale of crack cocaine and then a 20- minute armed heist of a Mercedes-Benz into an opportunity to wise up.

After chatting a while, Stephens slapped his thighs and stood up. ''I got to burn some metal,'' he said.

Folsom High School, in the heart of town, has no metal shop. The program was cut, along with home economics, to create more classrooms for the 1,400 students crammed into a few old brick-and-stucco buildings meant for 800. Sixteen temporary classrooms catch the overflow.

For decades, California schools have relied almost solely on the state for their funds. But with state money tight, voters in Folsom pitched in with a $42 million bond issue for the high school and other projects. Even that won't be enough.

To help fill the city's coffers, well-to-do Folsom has learned to tap the inmates it hosts. The city's official population of 38,000 counts prisoners to boost its state sales tax reimbursement.

Residents are pleased to let inmates sort their recyclable garbage. Folsom even got into the prison business as a state subcontractor, building and running a small $18 million prison to hold parole-breakers.

But back at the high school, kids share lockers. Between periods, the main hall is dense with teen-agers, a dust-up waiting to happen, said the school's frustrated principal, Jill Solberg, middle-aged with a no-nonsense air, even in jeans, blouse and a sweatshirt.

''We've been very lucky,'' Mrs. Solberg said. ''We've got really good kids and we don't really allow them to get away with much. The lack of physical space with kids brings out conflict quickly.''

School assemblies are held in shifts in the gym, where broken tiles jut from the ceiling. The school lacks a public-address system. Intercoms won't work if one phone is off the hook. The school computer lab is outdated. Parents donate money to keep the music program going.

''The limitations are so horrendous,'' Mrs. Solberg said. ''Public education in this country is taking one hell of a hit. Some of it is not related to money, but some of it is.''

''We don't have any problems with the prison,'' said Bob Holderness, Folsom's tall, silver-maned mayor.

''The problem I have is ... you look at our high school, which is pitiful, and you look at the prison and you think, 'This is crazy.'''

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State officials crow that reported crime has leveled off since peaking in 1980 - just as it did nationwide. They don't point out that was four years before the first of the new prisons opened, in Vacaville.

Closer inspection of the numbers finds property crime down, while violent crime is up; they cancel each other out on paper, if not in life.

And yet, since 1980, the percentage of violent criminals in prison has shrunk, from 63 percent to 43 percent.

It adds up to this, experts agree: Prisons pose no clear threat to the crime rate. A 1993 Rand Corp. study concluded as much.

Joan Petersilia, head of criminal justice research at the Santa Monica- based consulting firm, reviewed two decades of state spending on crime and prisons.

''The massive investment in crime control - and the doubling and redoubling of the prison population in recent years - may have had little effect on California's crime rate, particularly violent crime,'' she wrote.

And more to the point: A decade and a half into California's crusade for incarceration, its people feel no safer.

Next: An Inside Look at Life on the Inside