VARIOUS EXCUSES have been offered for the mass escape of 30 dangerous criminals from the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup -- but none is acceptable. Like the plot in a bad prison-break movie, the "security" at Jessup was full of unbelievable holes; the difference, however, was that the bad actors were real and some of them are still loose. Events since the incident -- including evidence of yet another escape attempt in the same section of the facility -- underscore the need for a serious tightening of security procedures as well as a reexamination of prison policies.

One stock excuse -- that the facility was understaffed -- doesn't explain why, with 50 guards on duty, only one was assigned to guard a section housing more than 100 inmates; nor does it explain why only three officers were detailed to watch over the outside areas after dark. That Gov. Harry Hughes has ordered 13 more guards for Jessup (and 33 more for other prison facilities) is fine, but they and all the others should be deployed more sensibly. And why did it take so long after the discovery of the break for officials to alert the police -- not to mention the general public -- that violent men were on the loose?

Granted, the century-old facility is rickety and jam-packed -- but neither of these facts explains why the alarms to alert the area of a breakout were not sounded, or why electrically operated doors to the dorms had been broken for some time. Also, there had not been a weapons shakedown of the dorms and cellblocks for two years until a post facto inspection turned up all sorts of crude knives, chains, syringes and iron bars in the possession of prisoners.

The fact that the Jessup complex is classified as a "medium-security" penal facility doesn't mean much, either, when overcrowding in the state system has resulted in violent men's being sent there instead of to "maximum security" compounds. True, one reason for the overcrowding is that far too many people convicted of nonviolent crimes have been imprisoned along with the murderers, rapists and armed robbers. To his credit, Gov. Hughes has supported important changes to relieve those pressures. But this welcome policy change is not the issue here, for neither the governor nor his corrections staff has advocated the early release of hardened criminals. On the contrary, maximum-security prisoners should be subjected to maximum-security conditions, far tighter than they have been. For public safety's sake, the breakout -- and breakdown -- at Jessup demands a swift, tough response.