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America's newest national newspaper is edited by an ex-convict for those who are still behind bars. Its avowed aim: to help them stay out when they get out.

The first issue of Inside Journal, a project of Watergate figure Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship organization, is in the mail for distribution to inmates from California to Connecticut.The eight-page paper - beginning as a quarterly with the aim of monthly publication by 1992 - got generally good marks during a sneak preview this week in the chapel of the District of Columbia's suburban Lorton Reformatory.

One inmate, Garfield Wells, who said he had been in another prison before Lorton, asked whether the paper would take on touchy issues such as prisoner complaints about the quality of medical care and food.

"We are going to address difficult issues like that," said senior editor Craig Pruitt. "We are going to do it carefully, in such a way that we can continue to address those difficult issues. It's not going to be a fluff piece."

Some of the dozen or so inmates who took part, out of 12,000 in the prison, said they thought more of the writing ought to be done by prisoners.

"This is a natural think tank, a laboratory of men who have had nothing but time to think," said inmate James Leak. "We prisoners are the best observers of the inside of the laboratory."

Pruitt told the Lorton residents that inmates in a number of states gave advice on the paper's design, and future issues will contain inmate contributions.

The second issue will feature a poem by a prisoner in Pennsylvania, he said.

Pruitt said he spent more than 15 years in business before being convicted of income tax fraud and serving two years in Seagoville Federal Prison in Texas: "Two years out of my life that I will never forget."

The editor has written free-lance articles for religious publications and worked as a religious broadcaster but is not a journalist by background. He has a staff of two assisting him and says this probably will double in the next six months.

The Prison Fellowship is an evangelical organization aimed at bringing Christianity to prison inmates. Like all of its projects, the paper is supported by charitable contributions. It accepts no advertising.

"I don't think we would interest many advertisers, since prisoners don't have any money to buy their products," said James W. Jewell, the group's senior vice president for communications.

Pruitt said articles on Christian themes will make up 25 percent of the paper's content.

"We don't want to be overwhelming the reader with that," he said. "We are walking the line of our Christian beliefs, but we are also putting out a paper that is not a religious tract."

"Our primary goal is to provide inmates with resources for life in prison and so that, once released, they will never set foot in prison again," Colson said in a news release on the launching of the newspaper.

The former White House aide served seven months in the Maxwell Air Force Base prison in Montgomery, Ala., after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with a case involving Pentagon Papers figure Daniel Ellsberg.

The newspaper's first issue features a front-page article about the conversion of a Montana inmate who attends a chapel service where Colson speaks, a piece on pop star Stevie Wonder's visit to a Maryland prison, and a reprint of a story quoting Gov. James Blanchard saying Michigan will build no more prisons after 1991.

It also offers advice on how to write a letter to a loved one and information from the Social Security Administration on benefits available to released prisoners.

Jewell, who has a degree in journalism, said all articles for the newspaper are reviewed by two advisory boards, one of inmates and one of correctional officials.