It is just after 4 p.m. and Andre Foster has taken his post behind the sealed gate of Tier A2, South Wing, Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. The Count, a noisy three-times-daily ritual, is getting underway.

The tier's 39 other prisoners have been shut into their one-man, 5-by-8 foot cells to be counted. Foster, however, is up and around, trotting off to drop two freshly laundered work shirts at a cell.Because of his near spotless record of good bahavior and rehabilitation, he is paid $1.35 a day by the state of Maryland to be a "tier runner," a sort of den mother and errand boy for other inmates.

Foster's tireless efforts to play by the rules and get out of prison have made him a minor celebrity among inmates and prison social workers. He has completed high school and college courses, directed inmate "self-help" groups and, in the company of an armed guard, appeared at conference outside the prison.

The result is a fat parole file, but release is still nowhere in sight. "The whole thing is time. You think they read this?" he asks, waving a black dossier containing recommendations from prison officials, judges and social workers.

Foster has gone through close to 12,000 counts since he began doing time in 1969. There is no way to know how many he will do before he finally gets out. Andre Foster, 32, has been sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.

Convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Foster is one of 525 prisoners in the Maryland prison system now serving life sentences. To outsiders, the prospect of a lifetime passed amidst the steel, concrete and violence of the Victorian-era prison at Jessup is unimaginable. For lifers such as Foster, it is a reality they must confront every waking minute. Freedom becomes an obsession and their efforts to achieve it often takes them on a surprising course.

Popular notions depict the lifer as the prison troublemaker, the guy who starts the dining hall riot because he "has nothing to lose." More often than not, according to corrections officials and psychologists, he is the model prisoner.

Rebelliousness is more common in the "hopper," the short-term inmate who bounces back between prison and the street, according to prison officials. The lifer usually realizes, though it may take him two to four years to do so, that good behavior is more practical than his only two other routes out of prison, jailbreak and death. In some cases, it is due to genuine remorse and rehabilitation. In others, simply a manipulative strategy toward procurring the magic "yes" from a parole board.

In general, according to corrections department officials, a prisoner serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison becomes eligible for parole after 15 years, less time accumulated for good conduct. Very few make parole the first time, however; others never make it and die on the outside.

Prison officials cite a study of one small group in 1978 that showed average time served before release to be 16 years, though the philosophy prevailing now is to keep them in longer. Prisoners claim the real figure is closer to 20 to 25 years and yet they keep trying. Nothing is overlooked that can speed the passage of time and raise hope, however faint, that today will be the day when the news of release finally comes.

Andre Foster is waiting for that day. So are Kenneth Tucker, Clifton Anderson and Bernie Taylor. Other lifers, particularly those in the Maryland penitentiary in Baltimore where more difficult prisoners are kept, may fight the system, but these four men have tried to negotiate a peace. Each says he has found a way to cope, to make the time seem a little shorter.

There is much about Kenneth Tucker, 26, that seems misplaced in prison: He is a slight, reserved man with almost lethargic serenity. His clothes (a sort of denim leisure suit) are clean and in good repair. He was written close to 100 poems since he began doing time six years ago.

"I didn't run across any poetry on the street. I never read anything, actually, on the street." For Tucker, the "street" was East Baltimore, where he moved in a world of heroin and small-time hoodlums. He served a year for robbery, went home and six months later was back in jail charged with murder in connection with a Baltimore holdup.

Now during the day he is a prison bureaucrat, administering rehabilitation programs from a third-floor that he shares with two other inmates. At night, back in his cell, he rolls paper into a typewriter and copies snippets of verse that he has composed during the day on scrap paper, boxes or whatever was available. The finished poems are filed in manila envelopes.

He began writing to combat the monotony he found at the prison system's reception center, where he spent four months "locked up 23 hours a day" undergoing diagnostic tests after sentencing. Tucker cannot explain why a Baltimore ghetto kid with a ninth-grade eduction settled on this diversion. "I had the basic necessities, the paper, the pen," he recalls. "All I needed from myself was the thoughts."

In the excitement of the new discovery, he decided to write a book, then abandoned the plan when he found he lacked the command of English. He settled for short verse, describing prison and the life outside that had brought him there. "Expressing a condition in two or three words -- that impressed me."

Tucker has also made it as a jailhouse entrepreneur, putting away several thousand dollars in a bank, he says. It works this way; with seed money he earned from jobs in prison, his grandmother organized dinners at $2 per person at her house. Profits went to Tucker. Bus trips to amusements parks were arranged with tickets at $10. Again, Tucker was the beneficiary.

His life in prison was not always so routine. In the first years, he says, he was something of a troublemaker. But then, he recalls, he arrived at a sort of crossroads after an evaluation meeting with a prison officer, who told him he'd get his first parole hearing in 1988.

"That was 1976. I went back to my cell and contemplated it. Finally, it dawned on me that there were 12 years ahead. I started to realize exactly what I was facing."

Slowly he settled into the lifer's mold. He now has behind him courses in printing, iron work, metal fabrication, air duct work, public speaking, ethics. He has completed his high school diploma. He has revived plans for a book, this one combining essays, poems and a play, and to be called "The Past Perception." And, like most lifers, he has filed suit trying to get his sentence reduced.

"Whatever comes, you try to endure, create the strength to deal with it," he says. With certain variations, it is the response they all give when asked how they deal with the tunnel of time.

At 35, Clifton Anderson is already acquiring the grizzled look and mannerisms of a much older man. Even if you decide to go along, life in a prison is never easy.

Violence can erupt without warning in The Cut, as the inmates call their home. Last June, in the exercise yard, Anderson found out the hard way.

"I'm standing side-by-side with an officer. We took a few steps and a guy came running out with a baseball bat and beat me over the head twelve times. That's the joint." He shakes his head in resignation. His assailant was subdued and now faces charges. The man had been seized with the urge to attack someone, it turned out, and Anderson was the first to chance along.

In the mid-1960s, Angerson was involved in a street scuffle in which a gun went off, killing a man. Some months later, police arrested him for armed robbery and charged him with first-degree murder in connection with the earlier crime. He ended up with life plus 10 years.

By the time he appears at his first parole hearing in February 1982, Anderson will have served nearly 16 years.Rule number one for surviving that long in prison, he says, is "Try to stay out of all complications with officers and inmates. That's the only way."

Anderson himself has long since settled down. He takes part in Seventh Step, one of several self-help groups operating inside the prison, sees a psychologist and takes vocational courses. He has also sent unsuccessful letters to officials as high as the governor to get his first parole hearing moved up.

In the meantime, having family on the outside helps speed the passage of time. On Friday night he lines up at a pay phone for a 10-minute call to his wife, Vanessa. She and 10-year-old son, Kenny, he says, give him something to live up to.

Not everyone can keep up their spirits over the years. The man who has given up is easy to spot, Anderson explains. "His actions begin to change. You'll find a guy who'll stop taking care of himself. Or in segregation [solitary confinement], you'll find a guy eating paper, or his defecation, or throwing it at people."

In 1970, Bernie Taylor and two other men entered a Prince George's County supermarket to stage a holdup.Shooting erupted and an employe was killed. Though Taylor says he did not fire the fatal shots, he got life plus 20 years.

Today, the tall, dark-skinned man in a sweat shirt and baseball cap says he is as rehabilitated as the prison will make him. "I don't belong here. I've survived 10 years and I don't see how being here longer will lead anywhere for me." His attempts to secure an early hearing have failed, however. "I don't think they even looked at my file. If they had, somebody's heart would have been touched." He manages a laugh.

There are three parts to how Taylor deals with prison life: his Baptist faith, respect for rules and absolute order in his personal life. Even his speech contains the diffident usage of a man struggling for acceptance. He has a radio in his cell "for listening pleasure." He uses the penologist's term "residents" for inmates until buddies cut in and protest.

His cell on B3 Tier, South Wing, has the clean simplicity on a monk's cell. It is one of the few without pin-up girls. It has a single potted plant on the floor, Baptist literature tucked here and there, and a tiny model fireplace to convey an impresssion of home. Each morning, when the lights go on at six, "I get up and thank God for another day that I survived."

For most inmates the day ends by a quarter to midnight, when cell doors are banged shut for the night. Forty-five minutes later cell lamps go out. But Foster says he sometimes stays up until 3 and 4 in the morning, sitting on a box stool by the bars, reading law books by the corridor lights that burn through the night (he recently had a copy of the Maryland Constitution on hand), or just relecting.

His thoughts, he says, often turn to "some unanswered questions." What do parole boards really look for in a prisoner? Why do prison officials string on inmates who have no real hope of getting out? How to cope with crowding that one convict compares to rush hour on a city bus. "These are the types of things that run through a man's mind," says Foster.

It is unclear how long Foster and the others will be contemplating these questions. Maryland prison officials say the trend now it toward making lifers serve more of their sentences, not less.