JESSUP, AUG. 6 -- Marching, mostly in step, and then standing ramrod straight in their red caps and electric blue uniforms, the first platoon of 45 inductees into Maryland's new "boot camp" talked today about their initial impressions of this latest experiment in penology.

"Ma'am, it was really kind of confusing, ma'am. Learning, learning how to speak, ma'am. And marching. Ma'am," said David Mounts, 22, of Essex, serving a three-year prison sentence for driving with a suspended license.

"Ma'am, this inmate has been in the program six weeks, ma'am," Mounts added.

"They're not an individual; they're part of a group," said Mounts's drill instructor, Cpl. Christopher Nickel, explaining why the camp's inmates speak in the third person. "As they progress through the program, they get their identity back."

The program, a mixture of military training and group therapy, is Maryland's latest attempt to rehabilitate its inmates.

To dedicate the new Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp today, a host of dignitaries, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, ventured out in the rain to the state's prison complex in Anne Arundel County.

"The camp was not set up as a method to ease overcrowding; it was set up to teach inmates how to learn discipline," Schaefer said. "They're going to work hard . . . they're going to be helped, and they're going to help themselves.

"What makes {prison officials} so sad is when {inmates} come out of the correctional system and then go right back in," Schaefer said.

But, amid the opening day hoopla for the program, prison officials acknowledged that such boot camps, which have been established in 11 states, might not keep offenders from "going right back in."

"There is no evidence that boot camps reduce recidivism," said Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who attended the ceremonies.

But the state is trying the boot camp anyway, Robinson said, in the hope that practical-minded rehabilitation with straightforward goals will succeed.

" 'Rehabilitation' is an overused word. What I am trying to do is prepare these individuals to go back to society," Robinson said. "You cannot 'rehabilitate' someone in an institutional network."

After the ceremonies, Robinson, Schaefer and a troop of reporters and officials walked through the boot camp barracks, between two rows of silent, stiff inmates positioned in front of their neatly made bunk beds.

Maryland's new boot camp, named after a guard slain by an inmate in 1984, is intended for the kind of inmates most likely to be able to change: first-time adult offenders, younger than 26 years old and have not been convicted of a violent crime. The camp is all male now but is ultimately expected to include women inmates.

"Shock camps," as prison boot camps are sometimes known, originated in Georgia seven years ago. They have been embraced by many of the country's prison officials and by national drug policy director William Bennett, but they have been criticized by some civil libertarians as pointless humiliation.

Maryland corrections officials began planning their boot camp in 1989, visiting ones in other states and consulting with the Marine Corps.

The new camp's inmates, who volunteer for the program, are subjected to all the classic rigors of military training such as marching, standing at attention and respectfully addressing their drill instructors. If one person breaks the rules, the whole group is given "incentive p.t.," or physical therapy, the euphemism for exercises such as push-ups and knee bends.

The program also includes drug and behavioral counseling and literacy training.

The inmates, who have been at the facility for four or five weeks, said they have been spending most of their time cleaning, painting and repairing the low brick buildings that will be their homes. Ultimately, they will work on state highway road crews during the week.

Another special aspect of the program is the intensive supervision and follow-up of inmates. Probation officers, who will join their charges during the last week of the six-month boot camp, will help them get jobs and "stay straight." Instead of the usual 175-person caseload, the probation officers will supervise only 50 graduates of boot camp.

Inmates, talking to reporters while standing at attention, were often just as optimistic as officials about the months that lay ahead.

"It will be a fun experience -- teaching me discipline and how to get to be physically fit in my body," said James Lee, 17, from Baltimore, who said he was convicted of "automobile manslaughter -- but it was involuntary."

At the same time, like the officials, some were uncertain about whether the experience will change their lives.

Romonda Southall, an 18-year-old from Baltimore convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, said he hopes to leave the program, rejoin his family and get a job.

Asked whether he thinks that plan will succeed, Southall hesitated and said, "It's an open question.

"This inmate can't really answer that right now."