The white truck rumbled into the old wagon yard and deposited 11 more men. A stench of rat-infested garbage bins fouled the air. From the other side of massive concrete walls rimmed with concertina wire came shouts and curses.

One of the handcuffed men, 22-year-old Ronnie Turner, gaped in awe at the Gothic, century-old Corner House of the Maryland State Penitentiary, which loomed 70 feet above him into the misty afternoon sky.

"It reminds me," he said, "of something out of a horror show."

Moments later, Turner and his 10 companions were stripped naked, showered with disinfectant to rid them of lice and outfitted in white cotton overalls. They had just entered the Maryland system of corrections.

Every year, more than 5,000 new convicts, ranging in age from 13 to 65, pass this way to the reception center on the south wing of the penitentiary, where they await classification and assignment to a state prison facility.

What they find here graphically foretells what they will experience later at the prisons. The center was designed to contain 310 men. Often the number exceeds 400. The men are sometimes crammed in pairs into 9-by-5-foot cells.

When there is no space available at the center, some new convicts are shuttled over to the penitentiary's main cells. At times, some are even dispatched to the prison hospital, where they live and sleep next to psychotics, or to the "segregation" tiers, a roach-and-rat-infested area that houses incorrigible inmates.

In a sense, these are the fortunate ones. They at least have made it to the system's front door. Four hundred others sentenced to serve terms in the state prison are held as long as three years in dilapidated, overcrowded local jails -- some built before the Civil War -- where there are no rehabilitation programs.

The prisons of Maryland are literally rotting from the inside out. They are, in the words of Allen F. Breed, director of the National Institute of Corrections, among "the most deplorable in the country."

The central reason is overcrowding -- too many bodies and too little space. There are more than 8,000 inmates serving time in state prisons built to hold fewer than 5,600. Another reason is age. Two major institutions, the penitentiary in Baltimore and the Maryland House of Corrections at Jessup, predate 1878.

Already meager vocational, education and health programs are hopelessly overloaded. Tension behind bars is higher than ever. Three years ago, there were 94 reported assaults on correctional officers by the inmates. Last year there were 292.

More than 40 inmates have escaped this year from major state facilities, 30 of them during one August jailbreak at Jessup. Nearly 500 others walked away from state prerelease centers. One official likened these escapes to water overflowing from an already-filled bucket.

This series of articles constitutes a tour of the Maryland prison system. Stops along the way include:

The state penitentiary in Baltimore, known by inmates as Doc's House -- The House of Dr. Frankenstein. Built in 1811 to hold 900 convicts, Doc's House has more than 1,300 today including the man who shot George Wallace. Inmates regularly slash wrists, achilles tendons and throats in attempts to gain access to beds and warm food in the prison hospital.

The Patuxent Institution and the Maryland House of Correction: a tale of two prisons. To House of Correction inmates, their prison is simply The Cut. The nickname refers to the commonplace assaults and stabbings that occur in the prison, and general living conditions including the notorious series of concrete basement cells known as The Hole -- where the only place to defecate is a hole in the floor.

Located directly across Rte. 175 is Patuxent, a model institution with a macabre history. Where inmates were once confined at Patuxent for indefinite sentences, the prison now boasts a recividism rate of 7 percent -- nearly 30 percent below the statewide average.

The Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, now home to Terrence Johnson, the young Prince George's man who shot two county policemen. Guards at the rural Western Maryland prison proudly call it "Stone City," but inmates call it "Hillbilly Heaven" and "Crackerville." MCI is the focus of systemwide tensions between the predominantly black inmate population and predominantly white correctional authorities.

Finally, the national model Montgomery County Pre-Release Center in White Flint, located next to the Washington area's most exclusive shopping center. Inmates there work full time in the community and turn over part of their income for food and shelter at the center. Cells appear more like college dormitory rooms.

Gordon Kamka, 39, the state secretary of public safety and correctional services, would like to see local centers like Montgomery's in every county in the state as one answer to the system's problem of overcrowding. He and Gov. Harry Hughes have effectively ruled out constructing a new medium or maximum security prison.

"Experience has shown," Kamka said recently, "that if prison space is made available it will be filled immediately. That's not the answer. The system requires large-scale reform."

The story of the Maryland prison system begins at the front gate of Doc's House in Baltimore.

Lawrence Fink, 24, was sentenced to five years in prison for forgery and assault and battery. He came to the reception center on a Friday, underwent a battery of psychological tests and, two days later, was desperately pleading to be placed in protective custody.

"Twice," he said, shivering in a solitary confinement cell, "twice they tried to rape me. I was standing in my cell and these four guys started grabbing me through the bars. I just want to get out of here and go to Patuxent."

But the backlog of convicts awaiting assignment to a prison facility is so large that Fink's stay in the gritty bowels of Doc's House could last as long as six months. The process of asigning prisoners "is like playing dominoes with beds," said the official who runs the operation, Sebastian Valent. At a recent hearing, typical of the twice-a-week sessions, the process like this:

A toy wagon filled with inmates' files was pulled into a windowless little room in the reception center, where a team of social workers and classification officers meet to decide where to send convicts in the over-loaded system.

In a monotone, classification counselor James Todd began reviewing a pile of 74 files.

"Number 151549 17-year-old male Raymond Mitchell sentence three months armed robbery first offense. I recommend prerelease," he said. "So did the judge."

"But he doesn't have any work skills," replied social worker Claire McGough, looking over a copy of the inmate's file. "He should probably go to MCTC (Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown.)"

"Yeah, he's got skills," remarked Marvin Davidson, acting assistant director of the center. "Says here he's a barber."

After two minutes of deliberation the six officials voted 4 to 2 to send Mitchell to the system's prerelease camp center.

During their hearings the embattled classification officers consider a range of criteria in determining where inmates should serve their time. The factors include age, previous convictions, types of offenses, work skills, family background, and drug and alcohol history. If an inmate considers himself emotionally or mentally deficient he can volunteer for admission to Patuxent, the state facility best suited to handle such people.

But the waiting list there is more than 150 names long.

Criminals 25 years old and under serving moderate-to-long sentences are often sent to MCI in Hagerstown. First and second time minor offenders usually go to the Maryland Correctional Training Center to develop work skills. The hardcore prisons, the penitentiary in Baltimore and the House of Correction in Jessup, are mainly for long-term and problem inmates.

On the other end of the spectrum are the state's six prerelease centers, located in all parts of the state.

There is no precise formula to guide the classification officers in their decisions. Usually, it comes down to gut feeling.

"It'd be nice if we had more time to look at these guys," said Davidson, quickly rummaging through a stack of files as Todd began reviewing another inmate. "But with the numbers we're dealing with, and the pressure to move people in and out, there's not much more we can do. We are the hub of a very lopsided wheel. We see changes in the system before anyone else."

"And what we're seeing," added classification supervisor Cliff Burton, "is the result of law enforcement excesses. In the late '60s, the police got all sorts of grants to make the streets safe. So they went out and started arresting a lot more people, and zappo -- we're out of room."

That is only part of the explanation. Overcrowding in the state prison system, which is now reaching its peak, is rooted in the late 1960s when public alarm over street crime was at its highest.

"Get tough" legislation was passed.Through the federal Safe Street Act, local police in Maryland received more sophisticated training. Arrest rates climbed to a point where Maryland's rate of incarceration outgained that of all but three states in the country.

Then came economic recession in the early 1970s, and the return home of many Vietnam veterans.

Other branches of the correctional system, such as the parole board, got tough as well. In the early 1970s parole hearing approval rates averaged 47 percent. By 1979 they had plummeted to 34 percent.

And the average length of prison terms in Maryland increased 15 percent from 1971 to 1978. Today, the average length is 66 months -- 20.5 months above the national average and one of the longest in the world.

Over that same period, the state's inmate population swelled from 5,309 to 8,000.

Perhaps a larger cause of the overcrowding problem is simple neglect. As the NIC's Breed put it, "One doesn't earn a lot of political capital in the area of corrections."

J. Brown Hardy, deputy secretary of public safety and correctional services, is a 23-year veteran of the Maryland prison system. "in some ways, the prisons are almost the same as when I first entered," he said. "But prisons also have a way reflecting changes in society."

In the late 1950s, Hardy recalled, the prison system was racially segregated. "It was tight as a drum. It was almost like the Marines. The inmates were out in the yard every day doing drills. When the warden walked past, an inmate would catch hell if he didn't stand up."

In time the prison environment shifted as society changed. Tiers were desegregated. Drug use behind bars became as common as it was on the outside. d

"And the public got sick and tired of criminals running wild in the streets," Hardy said. "So the attitude emerged of lock 'em all up and throw away the key. And that's what we're paying for now."

So Davidson, Valenti, Todd, McGough, Burton and the others posted at the front gate of Doc's House spend more hours and days buried in taller and heftier bundles of inmate files.

"But it wouldn't be so bad if we didn't have to deal with this," Valenti said, pointing to a statistic on that day's intake log.

More than half of the inmates on the list were sentenced to three years or less for nonviolent crimes.

"Our headaches would be erased just like that if the counties just went ahead and kept them themselves," Valenti said.

Actually, public safety head Kamka has decided to do just that.As part of the department's $70 million legislative package for next year, Kamka had included $38 million for the construction and renovation of county facilities.

"It's best all around," Kamka maintained recently during remarks after a speech in Towson. "Eventually these men will return to their own communities. We can rehabilitate them better on a local level.

"The problems that led them to crime in the first place will only be exacerbated if they are incarcerated with hardcore criminals in huge state facilities."

Back in Doc's House, 21-year-old James Jones of Baltimore leaned against the bars on a south wing tier and scratched his head.

"They give me five years for house-breaking, right? I said fine. But hell I'm just sitting around here doing nothing for four months," he said.

"Sure as hell would like to get out of this place. It's driving me crazy."

Late that afternoon, Valenti took his daily jog downstairs to enter another round of musical cells with penitentiary warden George Collins.

"Well George, I'm in a spot again," Valenti said to the blockhouse-shaped warden. "I got 15 coming over from the Baltimore City Jail and there isn't anywhere to put them."

Collins shook his head and began telephoning various outposts of the prison, to see if there was any space available to accommodate the new arrivals.

He called the hospital. Segregation. Guard posts. Nothing.

"Well, the only thing we can do is double up a few guys," Collins said.

"That," Valenti said, "is about all we can ever do."

"Well, you know what shape we're in," the warden shrugged. "It's bad enough that it's the penitentiary. But a crowded penitentiary is something else."