Jack Amatucci, the one-time millionaire car dealer, the easy-joking, easy spending friend of Washington area politicians and wealthy businessmen, stood on the stone steps of the Hagerstown prison in the cool Sunday morning breeze.

He was there to visit his son and namesake, 19-year-old John Jr.

"You know," he says, raising his eyes toward the prison's sober exterior, "I've spent just about every Sunday of my life for the past five years visiting [my son in] some institution or another.

"Does it bother me to have a son in prison?" he asks rhetorically, fingering a gold Leo zodiac medallion around his neck. "You grow numb to it."

The story of how Jack Amatucci's son came to the medium security Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown at age 19 - to share a cell with a convicted murderer shows how an elaborate juvenile justice system continues to fail many youths, particularly those most difficult to help.

It is also a story about a father's anguish over an adopted only son who was as good at getting into serious trouble as most kids are at getting into the cookie jar. It is a story of how Amatucci saw all his efforts to help his son fail, one by one, as both his family life and his business dealings crumbled.

In the summer of 1958, John (Jack) Amatucci Sr. and his wife Drucilla went to the Catholic Charities and adopted a pudy 3-month-old baby, whom they named after John Sr. and nicknamed Jackie. The Amatuccis also adopted a daughter two years older than Jackie.

As Jackie grew up, attending Catholic school, he and the Amatucci family lived in a $300,000 home in Bethesda. There was a yacht to play on, a seaside house in North Carolina, vacations in Europe and money to spare.

None of it seemed to make young Jackie happy, however. Over and over, he ran away from home, disobeyed his parents, refused to do his school work. He began using drugs as a teen-ager - barbiturates, amphetamines, acid, cocaine and PCP - according toc ourt records. He also drank heavily.

When Jackie was 13, his parents turned him over to the juvenile court as a "child in need of supervision," hoping the state juvenile system could give him the help he needed.

Jackie has since been through six juvenile facilities, a mental hospital and psychologist after psychiatrist. The doctors held varying views, according to court records, on what was best for the boy, but they agreed on only one point: his problems stemmed from a stormy home situation where father and mother were engaged in constant battles that came to include the boy.

Now, at the end of all of this, Jackie, at 19, is sitting out a four-year prison sentence in Hagerstown for attempting to extort $250 in 1976 from a family he knew in Potomac. The extortion attempt came while he was AWOL from a state forestry camp for juvenile offenders.

The once-handsome round-faced little boy in a photograph still hanging in his father's office now has a broken nose, a tattooed arm, and missing teeth, the souvenirs of his various stints in penal institutions.

The prison doors snap loudly, like a gun going off, when they open and close. Jack Amatucci Sr. walks through the electronic detector, which buzzs when it picks up the presence of his metal keys. He turns them over to the guards.

He takes a seat in the waiting room where the floors are covered with crumpled candy wrappers and cigarette butts, and the pastel-colored chairs are smudged with black finger-prints.

There are perhaps 25 other people in the room. Amatucci, who has the torso of a bear on top of long, spidery legs, glances at the clock. It is 9:35 a.m. by the time he's gone through all the security checks, and visiting time will end at 11 a.m.

Finally, at about 9:45, the name Amatucci barks over the public address system. Amatucci is escorted by a guard to a bare cell with benches along the wall. That is the visiting room. A sign on the wall warns against physical contact with the prisoners.

Five minutes late, Jackie is led in.

Jackie Amatucci is a short, stocky youth with shoulder-length hair, dressed in jeans, and wearing a green T-shirt underneath a prison-issued gray shirt. His fingernails have been chewed to the nub.

Father and son exchange no hellos, only nods.

Seated on his prison bench, a silly, half-smile on his face, Jackie, under questioning from a visitor, dismisses his long juvenile record as his "adventures."

"I knew when I was a juvenile, they would never lock me up (with adults)," he says. Under Maryland law, children in need of supervision cannot be kept in locked facilities or palced with adult criminals or juvenile delinquents.

Jackie said he has been awakened abruptly to be difference between a juvenile and adult institution at Hagerstown. "You can't ever go home," he says incredulously.

Jack has complained in letter after letter to his father about the other older inmates at the prison, who, he says, threaten daily with bodily harm. He receives medication for his nerves and for his nightmares.

Jackie slurs his words when he talks. And he seldom talks. He has ninth-grade education. Intelligence tests he took in 1970 show he has "dull to normal" intelligence.

"I can't even understand him when he talks," said his father. "I don't even know my own son. It's god-damn shame."

But Jackie is far more articulate in his letters to his father.

In one letter dated June 19, Jackie wrote:

"Dad, at times I wish you never ever had any money and we lived in the slums and all that . . . I get tired of people saying, Is that your father who owns that big place, what . . . are you doing in jail, he won't get you out?"

He begs his father in the letter to ask the prison to place him in protective custody, where he would be away from many of the older, long-term inmates whom he fears so much.

Amatucci tried to get help for his son from Judge John Mitchell, who sentenced Jackie. He tried to get help from the prison itself, and even from his own lawyer (whom he has since replaced with another attorney who, he thinks, will pay more attention to Jackie's case).

Amatucci finally wrote to a newspaper, he said, because "I am at a point where I have given up on the judicial system. I lost a son at 13 - he's 19 now and obviously headed for a life of crime . . . I consider him gone."

The problems with Jackie, Amatucci recalled later, began when the boy was in kindergarten. He'd walk out of the classroom because he was bored.

Since early childhood, Jackie has had a hostile relationship with his mother, which culminated recently in his taking his mother off his prison visiting list. That makes it impossible for her to see him now.

Mrs. Amatucci repeatedly refused to be interviewed for this article.

In the second grade, Jackie got into trouble in Catholic school for riting an obscenity on the blackboard in his classroom, his father said.

When he was older, he got into trouble for writing a suggestive love note to his pregnant fifth-grade teacher.

"My brother has always had a problem discipling himself and accepting discipline from others," said Jackie's older sister, Gina. A graduate of the same college her father attended, Gina "never gave her parents a day of trouble." Amatucci said. She was held up to Jackie as a model.

When Jackie was 13, his parents decided that they just couldn't handle him any more. Perhaps, they thought, perhaps the juvenile, with all its trained professionals, would know how to deal with their son.

It is with 20-20 hindsight that Amatucci now looks on this decision, which he and his wife made in 1972, after Mrs. Amatucci discovered a small quantity of marijuana in Jackie's room.

Now, Amatucci says, he regrets that he acquiesced to the idea, and regrets that his desire to keep peace in the family was stronger than his desire to take responsibility for his son.

"I admit I was weak," he says now. ". . . But some judge should have said to us at that point, 'You take that boy jail.'"

Jackie's behavior only worsened inside the juvenile system.

"The defendant . . . at the age of 16 . . . used acid approximately three to four times a week for a period approximately six months . . . He denies dealing drugs," the court record says.

He was expelled from Karma Academy in Rockville, a juvenile home designed to help drug users and those who need constant psycho-therapy, after he sniffed the contents of an aersol can.

Two years later, when he was home from a term in training school, where the court sent him when Karma expelled him, he stole over $23,000 worth of his mother's jewels. He was later found selling them in Rockville for $10 a piece.

Each time Jackie entered another institution, there was a glimmer of hope for Amatucci that this time, it would be the right one for his son.

But one by one, each hope turned black. Eventually, it became evident that the system that has helped many other juveniles return successfully to their families with their attitude and behavior changed, was failing Jackie at every turn.

In the years his son spent in and out of juvenile facilities. Amatucci was burdened with problems at his Chevrolet dealership on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton. Through General Motors, he started an expansion program for the business that he found he could not finance alone. General Motors gave financial help in return for much of the stock in the dealership.

Amatucci was forced to take out three additional mortgages on his Bethesda home. He sold his interest in two other financial ventures, a Maryland bank and a foreign bicycle company.

In 1973, he sold for $3 million the Wheaton automobile dealership which his Italian-born father had founded in 1954. For the first time in his life, Amatucci went to work for someone other than himself.

Most of the profit from the sale was eaten up, first as Amatucci paid his outstanding debts and then in the course of his divorce from his his wife. Although he was still well-to-do, Amatucci was no longer a man of wealth.

At home, his long-standing marital difficulties had reached a breaking point. With Jackie in a juvenue facility and Gina away at Gettsburg College in Pennsylvania, Amatucci separated from his wife. They were divorced this summer.

Amatucci now lives on a rented farm in Brunswick, Md., with a goat and two dogs. He owns a car dealership much smaller than the massive business he once had on Georgia Avenue.

Around Christmas time in 1975, shortly after Amataucci had separated from his wife, Jackie arrived at his father's apartment "in an old Army jacket." The youth was AWOL from a forestry camp for juvenile offenders.

Amatucci gave him $70.

A few days later, Jackie called again for money. This time Amatucci refused and begged the youth to turn himself into authorities.

On Jan. 19, 1976, a Potomac family that Jackie knew received the first of a series of phone calls in which the youth threatened to dynamite their house if they didn't give him $250.

The phone company was able to trace the threatening calls to the Amatucci resident. The police asked the Potomac family to arrange a meeting with Jackie at the Cabin John Shopping Center for a phony pay-off. It almost worked.

But before the police could apprehend him, Jackie heard the police radio in the car and ran home, where officers found him hiding under a bed. He had a loaded revolver.

Though Jackie was 17 at the time, Judge John C. Tracey sent his case to the adult court because of the nature of his charge. There, Jackie pleaded guilty to extortion.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John Mitchell sentenced Jackie to four years in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if Jackie would take part in a drug rehabilitation program at Second Genesis, a youth home in Prince George's County.

Jackie lasted about a week in the program, then ran away. He was picked up and eventually sent to Hagerstown, where he has been for the past nine months. He comes up for a parole in October.

But when he comes out, there will be new scars. Last Aug. 15, prison authorities say, Jackie kicked the sliding door of his prison cell out of its track and screamed obscentities at guards who were removing a friend of Amatucci's from another cell.

What happened next is the subject of a state police investigation. Amatucci Jr. and his father claim that prison guards sprayed Mace in Jackie's face, dragged him by his hair to an isolated cell, and beat him severely.

A preliminary investigation by prison officials "indicated no wrongdoing on the part of the guards," according to Elmanus Herndon, acting deputy commissioner of the Maryland Division of Corrections.

But Jackie's father said that his son was "a mess" after the beating, with a black and bloodshot eye and bruises over much of his body. The senior Amatucci wrote Acting Gov. Blair Lee and asked for help. At about the same time, Robert Lally, director of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, ordered a state police investigation.

"I guess everybody at this point would just like to see Jackie disappear. But he's not going to," said Amatucci. ". . . There are a million Jackies in prison today."

About 75 per cent of all adult criminals have juvenile records, said Judge Douglas Moore, chief juvenile judge in Montgomery County.

"There are some (youths) form whom every program we have tried failed. Those individuals are just plain incorrigile, or a program has yet to be discovered that takes care of their individual needs . . .

"I just wish we could get across to kids who are going bad that the juvenile facilities are a picnic compared to the adult system."

So does Jackie's father.