Samuel F. Saxton, director of the Montgomery County Detention Center, is the leading contender to succeed Arnett Gaston as head of Prince George's County's troubled Department of Corrections, sources said yesterday.

The department has been without a permanent director since Gaston resigned in March, amid criticism of his management of the jail.

Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening tentatively has scheduled a news conference for Friday, and one source said that if details can be worked out, Saxton's appointment will be announced at that time. The appointment must be confirmed by the County Council.

In addition to running the jail in Rockville, Saxton, 51, serves as deputy director of Montgomery County's Department of Corrections.

An ex-marine major, Saxton supervised detention facilities in Vietnam, Okinawa, Japan and California during his nearly 30-year military career. He has a degree in business administration from the University of Maryland and is working toward a master's degree in corrections administration from Maryland.

Neither Saxton nor Glendening spokesman Tim Ayers would confirm the appointment, saying the selection process has not been completed. But Ayers acknowledged that Saxton was among those considered.

"It's down to one candidate," Ayers said. "We think we have an attractive candidate and we think we're in the final stages of negotiation."

Saxton said, "I'd have to say that I'm one of several people being considered, and no decision has been made as far as I know. I expect to hear in a couple of weeks."

Sources in both Prince George's and Montgomery said, however, that Saxton already has drafted his resignation in Montgomery, and that the appointment could be announced as early as Friday. They said that the details of Saxton's contract with Prince George's have not been worked out, however.

A Montgomery official, who asked not to be named, said, "It will be a loss. As an ex-military officer, he generates respect from both the inmates and subordinates as well. Everybody speaks highly of him."

If selected, Saxton would become head of both the county's Detention Center and Corrections Department, which have received negative publicity in recent months.

Much criticism occurred after an escape and attempted escape last summer, and after a Washington Post series last fall detailed numerous sexual assaults among male inmates at the jail. Gaston initially said he did not believe the assaults had occurred, a statement that county officials considered insensitive.

Gaston's management skills also were criticized in an audit by the National Sheriffs' Association, which concluded that the facility met only about half the association's criteria for a well-run jail.

Gaston, in his resignation letter, blamed his difficulties on the severely overcrowded conditions at the jail and on subordinates who he said undercut his efforts at improvement. The Prince George's Detention Center, which opened in 1977, is under a court order to ease overcrowding problems as a result of a lawsuit. The facility, built to hold 143 prisoners in single cells, houses 425 inmates, and frequently held over 500 people before the court order.

Gaston said his firing wouldn't look good in the black community since he was the highest ranking black appointee in the county, which is 37 percent black. Glendening expressed concern that he would be criticized by black community leaders for his action.

Saxton is black, and Montgomery's black activists familiar with his work said he is highly regarded.

His appointment "would seem responsible and reasonable because he's a real professional, who has also done a lot for the community," said detective Tony Fisher, a Montgomery police officer and president of the National Black Police Association. "He has gotten members of the community involved who otherwise would not be . . . . I think Sam brings a certain sensitivity to the job being a black man, as well as a dynamite administrator . . . . "