Hagerstown's proud motto boasts of Western Maryland's largest city as "A Great Place to Visit and a Nice Place to Live." Now, to the dismay of its citizens, Gov. Harry Hughes, taking advantage of that open-arms hospitality, has selected Hagerstown as the site for a new $41-million prison to house more than 700 murderers, rapists, thieves and other assorted convicted felons.

"We're not interested in becoming the prison capital of Maryland," said Hagerstown Mayor Donald Frush, referring to the fact the city already has two prisons housing 3,094 inmates. "Hagerstown is too beautiful and too historical for such a label."

Laboring under that thought, the politicians and citizens of Hagerstown and surrounding Washington County have mounted a public campaign to block construction of yet another prison, while pleading with other Maryland counties to take their fair share of inmates. One legislator filed a lawsuit challenging the construction contract. Local citizens have suggested amending the state's constitution to bar any more prisoners from their county. The group also approached black and liberal legislators in hopes of forming a coalition in favor of putting the prison closer to Baltimore, the home of most of the state's prisoners.

But the Western Maryland prison opponents have met with only frustration, further increasing their sense of isolation and loneliness in a state whose power center lies 80 miles east, in Baltimore, Annapolis and the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

"We're in the minority--in the legislature, in population, in any part of the political process," Frush said. "It's not fair."

Sen. Victor L. Crawford, who chaired the legislative task force that approved the governor's choice of the Hagerstown site, put the westeners' dilemma more succinctly; "The people in Western Maryland really got screwed," he said.

This is a particularly bad year for the westerners to have to make their antiprison stand. The state is under federal court orders to end overcrowding. Projections show an expanding prison population continuing to outpace cell space for at least the next decade. And an election-year legislature, responding to heightened public pressure, is crying for mandatory sentences to send more convicts away for longer periods.

When the westerners approached the black legislators for support--thinking that black lawmakers would be sympathetic to having the predominantly black inmate population closer to their families in Baltimore--they were rebuffed. "Why should we pay any attention to the needs of prisoners to be near their families?" said Del. John Douglass (D-Baltimore), chairman of the legislators' black caucus. "I'm more concerned with the victims. Who are the victims? Blacks."

Even among westeners there are some desertions in the ranks of the likely prison opponents. Sen. Edward J. Mason (R-Allegany) is supporting the project, ending any hopes of a Senate filibuster, prison opponents said. The prison guards' union in Hagerstown thinks the new facility will help them increase staff and security. And with Western Maryland now suffering from high unemployment, there are a few who privately support the idea.

"Just between you, me, and the gatepost," said one Western Maryland politician, " . . . I actually think Hagerstown is the best place to put it. I think it will solidify the institutions already out there. But no politician in his right mind is going to say that publicly."

He added, "It helps the travel business, it helps the food business, it helps the hotel business."

Hughes' selection of Hagerstown as the prison site last October, and the likely approval of that choice during this General Assembly session, caps one of the legislature's most bitter and protracted struggles of the last five years--where to build a new state maximum-security prison, and whether to build one at all.

For Hughes, the decision to build the prison represents the political evolution of a corrections policy once derided as "soft" on criminals. Prodded by his liberal-thinking corrections secretary, Gordon Kamka, Hughes came into office in 1979 advocating more lenient paroles and no new prisons as the way to ease overcrowding. He now has completed a gradual turnaround that started with Kamka's resignation under fire.

For the legislature, the Hagerstown decision ends a fractious and long-running controversy that put regionalism on a collision course with the demand for more prison space. Everyone wanted a new prison, but nobody wanted it in his district. The prison became a political football punted around proposed sites in Baltimore, Prince George's, and Anne Arundel counties before landing in Western Maryland.

The Hagerstown decision underscores the political isolation and impotence of a sparsely populated, often-forgotten side of the state, an area that lacks the influence--meaning votes--to control its own destiny. "The governor has made a blatantly political decision that he doesn't need the votes from Washington County," said Sen. Victor Cushwa (D-Washington).

"My original approach was to talk to the blacks and liberals," Cushwa said of his effort to fight the prison site. "But I got nowhere.

"They the prisoners want to be closer to their familes, closer to their communities," Cushwa continued. "Two years ago, the blacks and liberals would have taken the same position. But now the blacks are silent. They used to say that they didn't want their own people in the hands of those redneck hillbillies 80 miles away where their familes can't get to them. Now there's a new law-and-order mood. The black delegates would just as soon lock them up on an island somewhere."

Most black legislators interviewed agreed.

"I've seen a shift go on in our community," said Del. Larry Young (D-Baltimore). "When I first came here in 1975, there was a strong position that we needed more halfway houses, more progressive thought. Now people are saying, 'Let's lock them away.' Now it depends on whose household got robbed last night, whose daughter got raped."

The remoteness of Hagerstown is not a concern, he said. "Now, with the massive public pressure, I'm not going to lose any sleep if they put it in Hagerstown."

That change in black attitudes underscores the difficulty that Western Maryland residents have in trying to find prison opponents. Gone or silent from this year's prison debate are those who favor rehabilitation, not incarceration. Absent as well are any civil libertarians calling for prisoners' rights.

It is a change reflected nationally, with crime on the increase and many criminal justice spokesmen, like Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, suggesting that the past protections for criminals slighted their victims. Reflecting that hardening of attitudes, the Reagan administration has suggested easing the rules that exclude certain evidence from trials, and making it more difficult for prisoners to appeal their convictions.

The change in attitudes corresponds to an increase in crime, with much of the outcry coming from the black community. Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) conducted a survey of his inner-city district with an overwhelmingly black population. The results: a large majority favored mandatory sentences for crimes and harsher juvenile sentences.

"Blacks are very conservative on crime," Rawlings said. "Go to some of the community meetings. These folks get rough, especially the ladies, and the ones who have been the victims of crimes. . . .They're fed up with it."

To calm Washington County's frustration, Hughes and his prison officials cite the economic benefits the prison will bring, including its 459 new employes.

Washington County, and Hagerstown in particular, is suffering from a recent layoff of 1,500 workers at Mack Truck, the area's largest industry. The city government is grappling with a severe cash crisis, including a $7 million shortfall in its pension program.

Prison supporters point out that the new facility will bring construction work, and business for Hagerstown's office, linen and uniform wholesalers.

But prison opponents say that the economic benefits to the county will be slight, compared to the adverse effects of a new prison. Housing values will drop, opponents contend, and new industry will look elsewhere to locate. Besides, they argue, the construction and supply contracts will be awarded through competitive bidding, and will most likely go to Baltimore firms.

"We don't think the economic benefits outweigh the disadvantages," said Leonard Lowry, president of the Hagerstown Chamber of Commerce. He cited a November study from the office of Economic and Community Development, which showed that Washington County would benefit from new employe taxes and spending, but that other economic benefits would be negligable.

The opponents, conceding their battle to block the prison is all but lost, are trying now to get the General Assembly to place a 3,500-inmate cap on the number of prisoners allowed in Washington County. There are almost that many there now, with 1,834 inmates at the Maryland Correctional Training Center and 1,210 more at Maryland Correctional Institution, both in Hagerstown. Both facilities are severely overcrowded, with inmates doubled-up in cells.

The westerners, like Clyde Moser, president of the prison guard's union, said that some of the inmates crammed into the two prisons could be sent to the new facility, to ease the doubling-up and increase security.

But Corrections Commissioner Jon P. Galley said that by the time the facility is built in 1985, it may be necessary to fill it with all new inmates, because of the growing prison population. But he wouldn't consider yet another prison there, he said. "If this facility is built in Hagerstown, I think that's enough in Hagerstown."