State legislative leaders toured the Maryland Penitentiary here today -- nine months after a rash of violence triggered demands for increased security -- and announced that the troubled institution appears to be improved but leaves much to be desired.

"They're making progress but still have a long way to go," House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin told reporters after emerging from a two-hour tour of the 1,240-inmate facility. " . . . It's a safer place but not as safe as it should be."

Cardin, accompanied by legislators including Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on law enforcement and transportation, said the group was checking to see if repairs and security improvements ordered by Gov. Harry Hughes in November have been carried out.

Hughes' order came after a series of violent incidents, including the fatal stabbing of prison guard Herman Toulson Jr. Oct. 6. The incidents spurred a "sick-out" by guards and later a stinging report by state Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs branding the aging and crowded penitentiary as the "innermost circle of hell."

Cardin then charged that the state's Division of Correction was riddled with "incompetence from top to bottom" and was failing to spend $4.1 million appropriated for vitally needed improvements.

Today, said Maloney, "They are spending the money as planned and on time." He said 30 of 37 new guard positions have been filled, most of 70 new walkie-talkies and 14 metal detectors are in use, and an improved telephone system is in place.

Also, Maloney said, new showers for the penitentiary's crowded South Wing have been built on each tier, and wider catwalks are under construction to improve safety for guards.

A progress report prepared for the legislators by Warden Howard N. Lyles showed that all but $903,000 of the $4.1 million has been spent.

Lyles, named in November by Hughes to head the institution in a major shake-up in the Division of Correction, said morale among inmates and guards has improved and that assaults and other violent incidents have declined. He said there has been only one incident requiring hospitalization of an inmate since December.

Lyles said the penitentiary's inmate population has been reduced from almost 1,500 to 1,240 by assigning prisoners to other institutions. He added that the number of inmates forced to double up in cells has been reduced.

But, Cardin said, guards still have "very little in-service training" in use of new equipment and prison control techniques. Also, he said, new security equipment, such as special "personal body alarms" for guards, are not being acquired quickly enough.

At a fundamental level, Cardin said, prison officials are stuck with an antiquated facility, much of it built in the early 19th century. "We're in the 1800s," he said. "We'd like to get into the 1900s."

Cardin and Maloney praised Lyles as an effective warden. Yet Maloney said morale may not have improved as much as Lyles claims.