Maryland authorities yesterday continued to search for six convicts who cut through an 18-foot chain-link fence and escaped from the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown Saturday night. It was the third escape from the prison in three weeks.

The inmates, serving sentences for crimes including second-degree murder, burglary and armed robbery, set off an alarm as they left the prison grounds at about 9 p.m. and were pursued unsuccessfully by guards and state police officers.

The Maryland prison system already is facing stiff public criticism over the recent indictment of 27 work-release prisoners, labor problems and overcrowding. Last week the system's two top administrators resigned their posts, saying the controversy had rendered them ineffective.

Jon Galley, superintendent of the Hagerstown prison, blamed the escapes on poor perimeter design and an inadequate guard force. "It's happened before," Galley said. "Until some physical modifications are made it will happen again." He said he has been seeking the necessary improvements for "quite a few years."

The prison currently has only two watchowers, Galley said. Three more will be completed some time this summer, he said. Better perimeter lighting, barbed wire and 12 more guards to allow 24-hour surveillance also are needed, Galley said, but funds have not yet been approved for them.

The Hagerstown prison houses approximately 1,760 inmates, most of them -- like the men who escaped Saturday -- in medium-security facilities. The six left the prison building by kicking a steel plate from a window and then cutting a hole in an 18-foot chain link fence topped with barbed wire, according to Galley. Wire cutters may have been stolen from a prison vocational shop, he said.

The convicts scaled a second perimeter fence, then disappeared into surrounding farmland. Maryland State Police dispatched six officers and a dog to the scene but recalled them yesterday morning after nothing was found.

Most of the men are from the Baltimore area.

Three weeks ago, three other men escaped from the prison's medium-security sections. Two of them were arrested in Baltimore; a third is still at large. Earlier this week, two other men walked away from a minimum-security area of the prison.

Galley said inmates regularly leave the minimum-security area. The recent escapes from the medium-security facilities were the first in about a year.

The Maryland Correctional Institution, another state prison located adjacent to the training center, was also the scene of escapes recently.