A state legislative subcommittee today ordered a management audit of Maryland's prison system after hearing new testimony that inaction and weak supervision contributed to "zoo-like" conditions at the Maryland Penitentiary, where a guard was slain last month.

Fresh from a tour of the Baltimore penitentiary's problem-wracked South Wing, members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on law enforcement and transportation voted unanimously to direct the state Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning's management analysis unit to evaluate the competence of top prison system officials and see if the limited number of guards are being detailed unnecessarily to clerical and other nonsecurity jobs.

The subcommittee asked that the audit be completed before the General Assembly considers the prison system budget in January.

"The object of the audit," subcommittee chairman Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's) told reporters later, "is to do as detailed a study of the whole statewide system as the attorney general did of the South Wing," a reference to a scathing report issued Tuesday by Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs' office. The 142-page report faulted mid-level and top management at the penitentiary here for failing to avert disruption and violence, including the Oct. 6 stabbing death of guard Herman Toulson Jr. in the South Wing.

The 400-inmate South Wing is used as a so-called segregation unit to house disruptive and violent prisoners, many of whom are brought in from other prisons in the state to serve disciplinary sentences in more restrictive confinement.

Sachs' report described the wing as a chaotic, foul-smelling, overcrowded facility where officials have been slow to implement structural improvements and new security measures for guards.

Acting on the report, Gov. Harry Hughes Tuesday ordered the penitentiary's warden and assistant warden removed and directed corrections officials to complete several security steps immediately, including providing metal scanners for guards, installing wire mesh on cells and tier catwalks and repairing broken door locks.

At today's hearing, Maloney and other subcommittee members sharply questioned Frank A. Hall, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and Arnold J. Hopkins, commissioner of the Division of Corrections.

The legislators -- including House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, who called the prison conditions "zoo-like" -- expressed frustration at what they said was slowness by prison officials to implement a series of security measures recommended periodically during the past year.

"I'm kind of pessimistic as to where we're going to go from here," said Maloney.

Subcommittee vice chairman Paul Muldowney (D-Washington County), noting that Sachs' report cited "weak management and little supervision from the DOC" as contributing to the chaos in the South Wing, said, "I want to know why we're here today."

"These problems are not going to be solved in the next two to three years," answered Hall, "but I think we're making significant progress."

At another point, Maloney asked Hopkins why some of the 25 new walkie-talkies given to guards in the South Wing in the last month "are already broken."

"I don't have any information in front of me as to why some are not functioning now," said Hopkins.

Snapped Maloney, "Because of this kind of answer, I'm afraid we're in danger of coming back here a year from now and finding these recommendations in Sachs' report are just so many useless papers."

Maloney also said he was disappointed by Hughes' pledge Tuesday to seek funding from the legislature to replace or rebuild the aging 1,500-inmate penitentiary in downtown Baltimore.

"If another high-rise facility is built on downtown property," Maloney said, " . . . all we're doing is bequeathing the same problems to a future governor."

Maloney told reporters later he favors demolishing the present penitentiary, parts of it built in 1811, and replacing it with a much smaller facility that would hold less than 50 percent of the current population. He said this would require building a new prison elsewhere for some of the inmates from the old penitentiary. "The $64,000 question is: Where?" Maloney said.