The double-bunking issue at the Utah State Prison - whether to allow housing of two prisoners in a single cell - remains an unresolved problem and one that plagues the federal prison system as well.

Panicked by the sharp rise in prisoner population, Utah corrections officials have pleaded with U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene to let them double-bunk prisoners - at least at the Wasatch Unit.Greene is committed to rule within the next three months as to the constitutionality of double bunking, and so he has refused to lift the injunction against it until he issues the ruling.

Prison officials have argued that more important than double-bunking is the "totality of conditions." They suggest that for economic reasons almost 90 percent of the country's prisons currently allow double-bunking.

Unfortunately, according to U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce, the Wasatch Unit is cramped, dirty and ridden with vermin - meaning that the totality of conditions falls short. Even spending $25,000 to upgrade the unit would probably not elevate it to a humane level.

On the other hand, as prison populations rise everywhere in the country, economics becomes the overriding issue.

According to a report just released by the government's General Accounting Office, there are 60,000 inmates in federal prisons. As a result, those facilities are operating at 60 percent over their designed single-cell capacity.

The report emphasizes that in these prisons, the practice of double-bunking has not led to more inmate violence or escapes.

Although the single cell standard is the one preferred by the American Correctional Association, the government report says that no new federal prisons would be needed for at least three years - saving hundreds of millions of dollars - if the U.S. Bureau of Prisons would house two prisoners in every cell.

In the past three fiscal years, the bureau received $2.4 billion to accommodate rising inmate numbers and to reduce overcrowding. Officials say costs could reach $2.9 billion by 1995 in the most costly federal prison expansion in U.S. history.

A civilized society has the obligation to treat prisoners humanely in spite of the reprehensible and offensive acts that put them there in the first place. But considering the economic straits faced in the Utah prison system, double-bunking appears to be the logical route.

It has never been the first choice at military boot camps, Scout camps, youth camps or even private homes - but economic necessity often rules.

Even if it takes thousands of dollars to upgrade prescribed portions of Utah's prison system to allow the practice of double-bunking, it may be the quickest and cheapest current answer for the state's expanding prison population.