Howard N. Lyles, a religious man, underwent baptism as a youngster. At 50, he is about to undergo another, this one a baptism by fire, as he takes over as warden of the troubled Maryland Penitentiary here.

With guards, inmates, correctional officials, state legislators and the Almighty looking on, Lyles, a 26-year veteran of the system, says he is ready for the task.

"God helped me through many difficult times," he said in an interview Thursday, the day he took over the aging, 1,500-inmate institution in downtown Baltimore. "He helped me through my entire career."

Lyles said his first order of business is to implement as soon as possible a list of quick-fix renovations and security improvements ordered by Gov. Harry Hughes Tuesday. The order followed a stinging report by the state attorney general's office citing violence, weak management and near anarchy in the penitentiary's South Wing, where the system's toughest and most disruptive inmates are held in punitive segregation.

At the same time, Hughes announced he was replacing penitentiary warden Leslie Dorsey and his assistant, Patricia Schupple, with Lyles and a new assistant warden, Bernard Smith.

Both Lyles and Smith come from another state prison complex, the 1,530-inmate, medium-security Maryland House of Correction in Jessup where Lyles was warden and Smith chief of security.

Lyles, who is married and has a 20-year-old son, is no newcomer to the tougher, maximum security penitentiary here. After a tour in the Army as a military police officer in Georgia, he joined the Maryland prison system. From 1958 to 1970, his first 12 years in the system, he worked there as a guard, rising through the ranks to become the first black captain in Maryland's Division of Correction.

As a supervisor, he worked in several other institutions and in DOC headquarters in the 1970s, becoming warden at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup in 1981.

At the penitentiary, he said, the inmates are tougher, more savvy and harder to handle than those in medium-security institutions.

"These are the long-term violent offenders doing 15 years . . . to life," he said. " . . . They represent a greater threat for potential escapes and greater potential behavioral problems."

What Lyles describes in measured bureaucratic terms is what the attorney general's report calls bedlam, especially in the South Wing, a five-tiered complex stuffed with 414 inmates where assaults commonly occur, contraband drugs and weapons are in abundance and the catwalks smell of "urine, vomit, rotting food and body odor."

The investigation and subsequent report on South Wing conditions by the attorney general's office was triggered by the Oct. 6 slaying of guard Herman Toulson Jr. during an inmate fracas. The incident also sparked investigative hearings by a state legislative subcommittee with budget oversight authority over the penitentiary.

Angry subcommittee members asked why nearly $1 million appropriated two years ago still had not been used to widen catwalks, install protective wire mesh and provide other security improvements. Correctional officials said contract bid-letting and construction work take an especially long time in a prison facility because of the presence of inmates.

Elaborating on that theme Thursday, Lyles said, "You have to be careful of the contractor and the equipment . . . to assure that the inmates do not get access to weapons or escape apparatus."

Also, he said, inmates must be temporarily transferred to other cells while work is done in their area, requiring the tedious process of assigning cellmates who will not fight or become disruptive.

"It is not a simple task as it would be in your own home," he said.

In the meantime, Lyles said, he intends to complete implementing new security measures already in progress, including reducing the South Wing population by about one-third and providing guards with metal detectors, walkie-talkies, flak jackets and personal alarm devices.

Lyles said he also supports a demand by guards and two unions representing them for special "stress" training to help guards cope with the unique pressures and dangers of their work. The training started this week, he said.

During a hearing this week by the Maryland House Appropriations subcommittee on law enforcement and transportation, Lee Saunders, assistant research director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said guards' work is "very stressful . . . . Burnout, suicide, heart attacks, divorce, things like that are very high." Noting that Maryland's statewide 12,600-inmate population is 46 percent over capacity, Saunders said Maryland has the highest number of inmates per guard in the area -- one guard for every 6.2 inmates -- compared to 2.8 in Virginia and 3.4 in the District of Columbia.

But Lyles was optimistic about the penitentiary's future.

"Once we get the institution better equipped and the officers better trained, then we can establish a better control over operations," he said. "This will give us time to evaluate and implement [longer term] programs to reduce these internal problems, both for the officers and the inmates."