Gov. Harry Hughes said today he is prepared to violate a federal court order against prison overcrowding and move hundreds of inmates now in minimum security settings back to more secure prisons.

Hughes said the prison system's problems are so much more extensive than he realized that he has ordered a review of every inmate in the system -- a move that could lead to the transfer of several hundred inmates who were previously judged fit for work release programs and community centers. He said no inmates will be placed in work release programs until the review is complete.

"If it's necessary [to violate the order] that's what we'll do," Hughes said at his fourth press conference in 10 days on the issue.

Hughes, accompanied by acting prisons chief Thomas Schmidt and two other aides, portrayed the state prisons system as a department plagued by low morale and mismanagement, including haphazard leavegranting practices that may violate state law.

The system of classifying prisoners has allowed violent inmates to go to minimum-security settings, while some nonviolent prisoners have been left in medium-security facilities, Schmidt said. He also said the department has no system for keeping track of how many inmates are on leave, how many have excaped and from where and other "basic management information."

"It sounds crazy to be operating a system like this and not being able to say, 'Here's the bottom line,' but that's the way it is," and Schmidt's spokesman, Bill Clark.

The comments by Hughes and Schmidt were the most extensive made by either man about the internal troubles of Maryland's prison system since the resignations one week ago of the governor's two top corrections officials, Gordon Kamka and Edwin Goodlander.

Kamka and Goodlander resigned in the wake of a public outcry over the indictment of 27 inmates from a state-run work-release center who allegedly committed crimes including murder, rape, robbery and heroin trafficking while they were supposed to be attending classes and jobs in Baltimore.

Hughes appointed Schmidt, a softspoken career bureacrat who now heads his Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning, to run the Department of Public Safety and Corrections until a replacement can be found for Kamka.

The governor contended today that he was not aware of the extent of the department's internal problems -- which he termed "breakdowns in management" -- until Schmidt took the helm last week.

However, the head of the association that represents prison guards said after the press conference that his group had sent Hughes a "white paper" last summer, citing most of the problems he outlined at the press conference -- a badly administered classification system, weaknesses in prison security, low morale and communications breakdowns throughout the department.

Hughes' aides said he scheduled the press conference today in hopes of reassuring the public that he is attacking the problem forcefully. The prisons issue has become the most serious political crisis of Hughes' administration, largely because the governor had strongly supported Kamka's progressive corrections policies in the fact of widespread political opposition.

Hughes has stressed throughout the controversy that he believes the system's problems grow from poor management, rather than faulty philosophy.

He characterized all of the steps that he and Schmidt announced today as management changes, not policy shifts. They include:

A review of every inmate in the system to determine which prisoners are in settings that are too secure or not secure enough. This could lead to the movement of prisoners now in work release programs back to more secure prisons.

Appointment of task force to consider a new classification system. A recent study suggested that one-third of the 2,100 prisoners in minimum-security settings are too violent to be there, while one-fifth of the 5,700 other prisoners could be in less restricted settings.

A moratorium on the placement of inmates in work-release settings, while their records are reviewed. This may temporarioly force the movement of prisoners back to double-celled quarters in medium-security facilities that are now under court order to ease overcrowding, Hughes conceded. If necessary, he said, he will ask a federal judge to grant the state yet another extension of the deadline for ending overcrowding.

Suspension of all leaves for two weeks, while leave-granting policies are reviewed. Hughes said some prisoners have been granted leaves in the past even though they did not qualify for them under state law.

A review of inmate discipline rules, which prison guards have contended are too lax. Rules approved last year by Goodlander set a maximum of 60 days in segregation for inmates who violate prison rules, including those who attack guards.