After two months of push-ups and squat-thrusts, "Yes, sir" and "No, sir," the young men in Maryland's first prison boot camp have gotten rid of some of the poisons in their systems:

An overweight inmate lost more than 30 pounds. And underweight former drug addicts have gained weight. Some were already too damaged by drug abuse to participate in the rigorous program, even though they're all under 26 years of age: Five of a platoon of 46 were dropped because of weak or irregular heartbeats.

Harder to purge, however, are the failures, losses and hardships that led this group of drug-related offenders into trouble in the first place.

"This inmate's mother was dying, ma'am, and he never did nothing about it," an inmate named Pritchard said haltingly of himself during a group therapy session, as drill instructor Valentino Savage barked, "You in slow motion?"

"I was not only using, I was selling drugs and supporting my family," said Anthony Betts, 22, of Southeast Washington.

Betts said that although he was making $10,000 a week, the program has taught him that "it's better to help {your family} at a slower pace."

The jury is still out on whether the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp can reduce recidivism in Maryland's crowded prison system. The first group still has four months to go. But prison officials who opened the Anne Arundel County facility to the news media yesterday said they have been strengthened in their belief that the camp's combination of military starch and hard-nosed therapy represents their best hope of turning around habitual offenders.

Here, according to correctional staff members, the offenders finally get a chance to try to "correct."

"This has renewed my faith in the correctional system," said Stanley Christian.

"You can do things that you just can't do in the other institutions. We can help them have insights into themselves because we really care."

The drill instructors sometimes show their concern in odd ways.

They make misbehaving inmates stand inches from a wall and stare at it, roll in wet grass and mud, take soapless showers and pick up fallen leaves by hand.

"You've got to dig for the gold rock -- the Major's Rock," said 25-year-old inmate Rodney Leak, describing the camp's Sisyphean pile of 100 white rocks, some the size of a rugby ball.

As punishment for breaking camp rules, inmates are required to pick up each rock, carry it 30 yards and build a new pile with one gold-painted rock at the bottom.

The gold rock is named for the camp's commander, Maj. Robert Clay, a short, rock-like man who leads the inmates on nine-mile runs.

"I'd heard from everyone I met: He's a man not to play with," said inmate Paul Biedzynski, 25, of Prince George's County.

"Me too, but I was expecting a man 6-foot-4, 250 pounds," said Leak, of Baltimore. "He's a 43-year-old man, makes you ashamed you can't keep up."

Of the 46 inmates who began in early August, 36 remain. Of the 10 who have left, half dropped out for health reasons, the others for disciplinary infractions. A second platoon of 43 has lost three for disciplinary reasons. This week, a third platoon of 55 began, and a group of 73 is waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, the staff continues to preach its message of tough -- very tough -- love and ever-so-modest goals for personal transformation.

"We try to break them down from that streetwise stuff, turn them into regular citizens -- nine-to-fivers," Christian said, as a new platoon sang in cadence: "We're the boys from boot camp you heard so much about. The mothers take the daughters in whenever we come out."

"You've got to learn to separate fact from feelings," counselor Debbie Richardson told the therapy group, all sitting straight-backed, eyes front, feet turned out at a 45-degree angle. She asked for examples of feelings.

Inmate Hicks stood up and told how he felt when he lost his temper and began cursing in court after a parole officer called him a menace to society. The judge promptly ordered that his sentences run consecutively, not concurrently.

"I'd reacted," he said, his voice sounding choked. "It was too late."

"I guess so, Hicks, that's why you're here, you dink," Savage said, causing the group to dissolve in laughter.

Richardson ended the class by playing the Diana Ross record "Do You Know Where You're Going To?" Many inmates began to hum or gently sing along.

The staff hissed: "No singing."