The growing need for prison and jail workers is helping push the number of public employees to record levels, the Census Bureau said.

Corrections workers were the fastest growing category as public employment climbed to a record 17.3 million people as of October 1987 - the most recent detailed figures available.While the overall total represented an increase of 2.1 percent from 1986, corrections workers were up 9.5 percent to 425,000, the report said. Overall population growth was less than 1 percent.

"Corrections is the fastest-growing segment" of government employment across the country, said Meredith De Hart, a social science analyst at the Census Bureau.

The public demand that criminals be incarcerated and kept there is growing across the nation, she said.

At the same time, many states and localities find themselves under court order to expand overcrowded jails and prisons, which then require increased staffs to operate the facilities.

The Census office that keeps track of government operations has been told to expect construction of a new prison every year in some states, said De Hart.

The 1987 corrections employment of 425,000 was up from 388,000 a year earlier. As recently as 1980 only 263,000 government employees had jobs in corrections, Census statistics show.

Other public safety categories also rose. State and local police employment was up 2.0 percent to 718,000 and fire department workers were up 2.8 percent to 335,000.

In addition, these governments employed 273,000 judicial and legal workers, up 5.0 percent from the year before.

Total government employment across the country was 17.3 million, the report said, up from 16.9 million a year earlier and the highest level ever.