The metal gate clanged open and the visitors stepped, somewhat nervously, onto the damp concrete floor of South Wing, the most notorious section housing the most troublesome prisoners within the Maryland State Penitentiary.

Five tiers of cells stretched upward, their old-fashioned bars covered by the addition of sliding metal doors painted bright yellow. The 239 inmates, ever enlivened by the appearance of strangers, began shouting, whistling shrilly and pounding their bars.

"We want out, we want out," some chanted. The din was ear-splitting. The smell of new paint pierced the air.

The visit today, by about 25 reporters and photographers, marked the first time members of the news media have been allowed to tour the aged penitentiary since the stabbing death of a correctional officer in South Wing last Oct. 6. The purpose of the tour, according to Warden Howard N. Lyles, was to show off the $3.5 million worth of improvements made at the all-male, maximum security prison within the past 12 months. But to the inmates in the section called South Wing, who spend 23 hours a day in their cells, the rare occasion was simply an opportunity to show off.

"This is a special show they're putting on for you today," Lyles said dryly as he herded the visitors through the wing built in 1876.

Some of the prisoners stood silently in their 48-square-foot cells, glaring at the reporters. One man paid no attention, sitting on his narrow cot and washing his feet with a washcloth. Others eagerly tried to make their grievances known above the almost indecipherable roar. "Hey, man, hey, man, talk to us," one inmate urged from his cell. "They're still beating people up around here, man."

Another inmate said derisively as the entourage passed, "They don't want to talk. They just want to get some news for society." Lyles, along with Maryland Corrections Commissioner Arnold Hopkins, had forbidden the reporters to attempt to interview inmates or correctional officers and warned them to stay closely together while walking through the block.

The South Wing reached a boiling point last October when correctional officer Herman Toulson Jr., 39, was stabbed to death, becoming the first Maryland prison guard to be killed while on duty. Inmate Nathanial Appleby was convicted of second-degree murder in March; the murder weapon was a homemade "shank" or knife.

On Sept. 11, seven Maryland Penitentiary guards were charged with assault for allegedly beating and kicking three inmates with their fists, feet and riot sticks after Toulson's death. The charges were a result of a continuing investigation into conditions at South Wing, described last year by Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs as "the innermost circle of hell."

"No, I don't think that's accurate anymore," said Lyles, when reminded of the often-quoted remark. "I refer to South Wing as a segregation unit for inmates who cause trouble." Lyles took over as warden last fall in an administration shake-up after Toulson's death.

The Maryland State Penitentiary in downtown Baltimore is a gothic, forbidding structure of dark stone surrounded by smaller buildings on 5.5 acres. The oldest section still in use was built in 1811. Today, it houses 1,157 prisoners, down from 1,464 a year ago.

Since Toulson's death, prison officials have hired 37 additional guards, bringing the total force to 375. Among other things, they have also installed a new telephone system designed for prison emergencies; purchased 77 body alarms for correctional officers, and made numerous security improvements, including alterations to cell doors. Eight new showers have been built on the tiers in South Wing to reduce the distance inmates must walk to bathe twice a week.

But, while Hopkins and Lyles praised the guards' "improved morale" and the prison's "successful summer," they also admitted to continuing problems. Among the new inhabitants of South Wing, for example, are 15 inmates who tried to escape on Aug. 29 by cutting the bars on a stairwell leading into the prison auditorium, Lyles said.

"I'd have to say that, with all our improvements, inmate idleness is still our biggest problem," Hopkins said. "Some of the inmates spend the majority of their time planning and scheming."

As the hour-long tour continued, Hopkins and Lyles led the reporters through the renovated chapel with its padlocked piano and stained-glass windows protected by metal mesh, onto the playground and into the dining hall. In almost every corridor, tacked onto the wall with other notices, was a special reminder to the prison guards. The notice announced a memorial service at Cookley Community Baptist Church for Herman Toulson Jr. on the first anniversary of his death.