They called him "Zero."

When he came into the Maryland prison system's new army-style boot camp in Jessup six months ago, convicted of drug possession, he didn't know how to take orders. He was overweight. He couldn't do a single push-up.

Now he's "inmate David Gray," a thinner, fitter man of 20. When he "graduates" from the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp next week in the first wave of 34 inmates at the experimental facility, he says, he will be ready, physically and mentally, to take on the outside world.

"This inmate is ready to work," Gray said yesterday, referring to himself in the third person as required by camp drill instructors. He stood at attention in his bright blue prison uniform and black necktie in platoon formation with his fellow prospective graduates.

He said a counselor is helping him to get a job in food preparation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Gray's hometown.

More important, he said, "this inmate does not want to associate with old friends or be on the street."

State Division of Correction officials opened the camp to reporters and photographers as the men of Alpha I Platoon prepared themselves for graduation and release. Another five platoons, all consisting of first-time offenders ages 17 to 25, have entered the voluntary program of drills, academic classes, counseling, physical exercise and spit-and-polish discipline and are at various stages in the six-month regimen.

Officials hope the program, modeled after ones in New York and South Carolina, will instill values of orderliness, punctuality and respect among streetwise petty criminals unaccustomed to the rigors of a 9-to-5 workday.

Inmate Vincent Carter, 23, of Salisbury, Md., convicted of theft, said he's ready. The program, he said in the staccato, paramilitary speech instilled here, has taught him "to follow orders, get things done and have things done exact."

Anthony Betts, 22, of Southeast Washington, convicted of drug distribution, said he wants to become an accountant. He said he wants to return to the American Educational Research Association in Washington, where he worked in the accounts receivable department before he was incarcerated.

Will the discipline and new self-esteem stick? "We don't know yet," said Frank Mazzone, assistant commissioner of the Division of Correction. "This is the first group to graduate."

He acknowledged there may be some "con artists" using the six-month boot camp program as a way to win early release.

"But with a lot of them," Mazzone said, "you can see it in their eyes: It really has helped them, and they want to make good on it."

The program, he said, "is designed to break all that street stuff out of them and then build them back up."

Camp commander Robert E. Clay, a short, muscular man who runs up to six miles a day with the inmates, said there have been no escapes and few disciplinary problems.

A 20-year veteran guard at the nearby medium-security Maryland House of Correction, Clay said, "Over there, I was just a lawman in a lawless place. Here, I have a real chance to change the lives of these guys."