The spare, monastic towers of the Maryland Correctional Institution rise above the rocky farmland here, a monument for almost a half-century to the immutability of prison life. But behind the walls and concertina wire, angry prison guards are quietly demanding change.

They say state prison authorities no longer support or trust them when they are accused by inmates of brutality and other mistreatment. They say state investigators tend to believe the prisoners before the guards. And in a recent case, they say the state refused to provide legal assistance for six guards sued in federal court in Baltimore by a group of prisoners for alleged civil rights violations.

The long-brewing dissatisfaction came to a head early this week when the state Division of Correction fired or suspended 11 guards for alleged mistreatment of inmates in two unrelated incidents.

On Tuesday, members of the 350-man guard force began a protest with a work-to-rule slowdown (doing no more work than literally required by their contract), but within 24 hours, many returned to their routine pace, and the action appeared to have lost much of its steam.

Meals and other activities for prisoners ran up to 30 minutes late Tuesday and Wednesday, but "everything's now on schedule," shift commander Maj. Ray Rosenberry said today. A Division of Correction spokeswoman in Baltimore, however, said the prison was still running 15 to 20 minutes behind.

Some guards said they decided to abandon the job action, at least for now, because of potential disruptions and safety risks within the crowded, 1,600-inmate population.

The guards are reportedly divided on the job action as a pressure tactic, and the leadership of their union, the Maryland Classified Employes Association, is away attending the MCEA annual convention in Ocean City, leaving the guards with little formal direction.

Feelings were running so high at the convention that MCEA officials called state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday to cancel a speech scheduled later that day in which he was expected to explain why his office would not represent the six guards in the federal court case.

"I was disinvited," Sachs said, adding that MCEA officials told him a group of about 100 guards and supporters planned to shout him down.

Meanwhile, guards at the medium-security correctional institution five miles south of Hagerstown spoke bitterly of the state prison administration.

"Too many times, we've been subject to lawsuits" for alleged inmate mistreatment, said shift commander Rosenberry, 43, a 19-year veteran of the prison, "and the attorney general's office ends up representing the prison administration but not the officers."

"We're citizens . . . . We have just as much rights as the inmates," said Officer Clifford Dean Robinson, 34, a 13-year veteran. "Inmates keep saying they've got civil rights. Well, the officers do, too."

Prisoners, especially those with disciplinary problems who are kept in isolation, "will fabricate charges" against guards and even inflict wounds on their faces and arms as phony evidence, Rosenberry said.

Both MCEA officials and rank-and-file guards have repeatedly voiced anger at Sachs' decision against providing legal assistance in the federal civil rights case, in which six prisoners have accused the guards of beating them while they were shackled and of requiring black inmates to call white guards "master."

MCEA officials claimed that there is no evidence of mistreatment and that state authorities unfairly investigated the case, simply taking the word of the inmates at face value.

Corrections officials said they found the allegations to be true after both the Division of Correction and the state police investigated the incident thoroughly.

In a telephone interview, Sachs said that when a state employe is sued and asks the state to provide legal assistance, Maryland law requires that his office investigate the incident first and determine if there was any "willfulness or gross negligence" by the employe. If such a finding is made, he said, his office may refuse to provide legal assistance. In the current lawsuit, he said, "there was an allegation of serious misconduct . . . and my office was unable to find that the case met the statutory standard" to justify providing legal assistance.

In the speech that he never delivered to the MCEA convention, Sachs said he intended to point out that the denial of legal assistance for state employes is "unusual, to put it mildly."

In his five years as attorney general, he said, there have been about 1,700 lawsuits filed against correctional officers, 15 percent of them for alleged brutality. Of the 1,700 cases, he said, all but two were defended by attorneys in his office, "and we won a majority of those cases."

"We don't leave the employes out there to dry," Sachs said. " . . . That's baloney."