The 34-year-old convicted rapist peeled layers of paper off the cigarette tip until only the plastic filter remained. For two hours, he rubbed the plastic against the concrete floor of his cell, sharpening it to a knife's edge.

Then he cut his wrists with the plastic, reopening wounds he had inflicted in a similar fashion only a few weeks before. He screamed for help and guards rescued him.

The man, in a perverse way, had accomplished what he wanted. He was finally out of the punitive "segregation" wing of the Maryland State Penitentiary and in the prison's hospital, where he would enjoy warm food and a private bed -- at least until his wrists healed again.

"Every month," says prison psychologist Dr. Kenneth Ellis, "there are at least four attempted suicides here."

The maximum security prison in east Baltimore, with is massive medieval backside squatting on Eager Street and Warden Place, is the hardest correctional facility in the state. The inmates call it Doc's House -- the House of Dr. Frankenstein.

Forty percent of the prison's 950 men are doubled into 9-by-15 foot cells built to hold one man. One of every 10, according to prison doctors, requires psychiatric care. And more than one-third of them are in Doc's House for life.

It is, as 26-year-old convicted armed robber Wilbert Blanding put it, "Tough times, Jack, 24 hours a day."

The penitentiary has a violent past and an uncertain future. Since 1950, legislators have debated demolishing or at least renovating the institution, which dates back to 1811. A special joint committee of the Maryland General Assembly recently concluded that the place should be torn down.

Last May state corrections officials -- under fire to modernize its three major institutions, including Doc's House, which federal judges have described as "cruel and unusual punishment" -- began the task of improving prison operations. Their aim has been to gain national accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections.

Their primary roadblock has been Doc's House.

On a test of nearly 500 CAC minimum standards, ranging from sanitation and guard deployment to written guidelines in the event of riots, the penitentiary flunked more than half.

"If I were to be taken hostage at a place such as the penitentiary," says state accreditation head Stephen Minnich, "I would have reason to be scared out of my head. With no written procedures to guide them, guards could either let me rot or come blasting in with their guns."

Doc's House has appeared in the public eye many times in the past, only to recede like a periodic nightmare:

1961: Ten cells are added to the pen's Death Row to accommodate growing numbers of criminals sentenced to die.

1966: One thousand inmates riot, smash windows, set fires and cause $500,000 damage.

1973: Six hundred inmates take over the entire west wing, holding seven guards hostage. Twelve inmates are raped and three guards are seriously injured.

1978: Two inmates die of burns and smoke inhalation after a fire in their double cell. Before he dies, one of the victims tells others on his tier that a spray can of flammable matertial was lit and thrown into the cell.

And now, a look inside Doc's House, where time is measured not by minutes or hours, but simply by night and day.

The Milwaukee busboy became infamous in 1972 when he shot presidential candidate George Wallace and three other persons in a Laurel shopping center.

Today Arthur H. Bremer, 28, is the loner, the silent man, the convict with the flaming red beard who speaks to no one at the pen, where he is serving a 50-year sentence.

"Nobody messes with that cat," an inmate says, watching as Bremer strokes his Rasputin-like whiskers and paces a steady circular path around the prison's rocky recreation yard

"Aren't you Arthur Bremer?" a visitor asks.

"Who are you?" he counters, eyes lowered to the ground.

"A reporter."

Bremer turns his back, gestures with his middle finger and continues his noon constitutional -- a familiar and haunting sight at the pen.

"What we got here," says corrections officer Capt. Henry T. Bever, "is the worst of the outside world. We also get guys who stir things up at other joints."

Bever has been an officer at Doc's House for 27 years. He speaks with grizzled cynicism in his voice, a result of years of "guarding the losers."

Each sentence he utters begins with the phrase, "What we got here."

"Now, what we got here," he says, pointing at inmates on the Yard's basketball court, "is a fine collection of losers. That's Jayhawk in the red cap . . . Robbed that drug store up on Parkhurst . . . . Killed the owner. He'll be here for a while.

"That's Tubby," he says, pointing toward another prisoner. "Got jealous with his girlfriend and shot her to death.

"What we got here," he says, "is basically what everybody else don't want."

That generalization includes mentally and emotionally disturbed convicts unable to find accommodation at Clifton T. Perkins, the state's jampacked hospital for the criminally insane.

In the Yard and on the tiers, inmates speak of zap-outs -- cons who cannot cope with conditions behind bars and pose serious physical threats either to themselves or others. That is one criterion for admittance to Perkins. But because of overcrowded conditions there, officials attempt to wedge them into the pen.

The problem has gotten so bad at Doc's House in recent years that the entire fourth floor of the prison hospital -- which is not equipped or staffed for psychiatric care -- has become a makeshift psychriatric ward and crisis clinic.

"The general quality of background data and health care in the system is horrendous," says Richard Freeman, newly appointed director of health services for the state Department of Corrections.

"A study was just finished on psychiatric services in the system.Not only is there inadequate service, but reliable estimates are that 200 to 250 inmates become violently psychotic every year."

"That," says Freeman, "is frightening."

The methods used by penitentiary inmates to gain admission at the hospital are legend. A 28-year-old convicted armed robber ruptured his ear with a plastic fork. Another inmate slashed his Achilles' tendon with a piece of razor blade.

Still another inmate, nicknamed "half-head" in brutal inmate vernacular, constantly picked a head wound with his finger until his brain became exposed. He was released from the hospital and returned to society when his sentence was up.

"No matter how severely troubled an inmate is, we are forbidden by law to keep him beyond the expiration of his sentence," Ellis says. "It's really a shame that these people committed crimes. Otherwise, they'd be in certified mental hospitals."

Doctors say that the mental disturbances that led some inmates to prison are severely exacerbated once they set foot in Doc's House.

"They're frightened. They're alone. Often they share a tiny space with another body," says psychologist Daniel Pororecki. "And many are here for the rest of their lives."

Inmate Clyde Tatum puts it differently. "Ain't no surprise, the way folks mess themselves up in here. If you were in a psychological slaughterhouse, what would you do?"

Tatum, 26-year-old Wilbert Blanding and several other convicts sat in the mess hall recently after tolerating a spaghetti dinner. Idleness and "segregation" -- the pen's punitive discipline section -- dominated their conversation.

"They serve you cold food between the bars," Tatum says."You shower twice a week. You're supposed to get a half-hour every day to exercise, but that depends on how well the guard feels. And he don't feel good too often."

"Tell him about the roaches that jump all over the bed," another inmate says.

"Man, I didn't even have a light in my cell for a week," Blanding says. "Then they finally gave me a bulb. When I screwed it in, I saw this big rat in the corner and I broke the light trying to kill it. I never got another light the whole time I was there."

Lock-up, as inmates call segregation, includes five gritty tiers within an old brick wing sandwiched between the old gallows area of Doc's House and the gas chamber. As many as 150 inmates are confined there at any one time.

The building is dimly lit. Inmates greet outside visitors with a cacophony of shouts, screams, taunts and pleas.

"MUTHAAAAA . . . rumble, rumble . . . hey, man hey, HEY . . . rumble, rumble, rumble . . . WHERE YOU FROM . . . rumble . . . shutttup, SHUTTUP."

Dozens of mirrors and pieces of mirror suddenly protrude outside cell bars, as the men attempt to glimpse the outsiders.

"A lady on the grand jury came through once and demanded to see lock-up," one officer remembers. "She left with [excrement] and tomato soup all over her dress."

The worst cells in Doc's House are on the lower level of lock-up. After inmates are fed, they throw uneaten food, paper plates and cups onto the ground level below. Dried garbage and age-old slime sticks to the floor and bars.

More than lock-up and zap-outs, inmates complain bitterly about "programs" and idleness.

Since 1965, five vocational shops have shut down at Doc's House, leaving only the wood program. The others including the metal, print, shoe and sewing programs have been transferred to medium and minimum security prisons.

"People figured the inmates were closer to leaving the system at other prisons and that they needed voc ed [vocational education] more than the pen," says one official.

"They were wrong."

Officials have had to create work, no matter how menial or trivial, to occupy the inmates. Thus, nearly a fourth of the population works throughout the day picking up litter and hosing off the yard.

"That ain't no kind of job," says inmate Tyrone Trusty, sitting on a bench in the flat area watching an afternoon soap opera on television. "When parole time comes up the guy'll look at me and say, 'so how've you been spending your time?' And I'll say, 'Well, I been picking up litter.'

"Then the man'll say, 'you ain't ready. Take a few more years,'" Trusty says. "This is the devil's workshop. You ain't surprised if somebody picks up a bat and hits somebody upside the head, just to see something happen around here."

Wayne Ronald Plant was 25 when he confessed to the murder of his two children six years ago. The Laurel man set fire to his home after locking the bedroom in which his children slept.

Now he is serving a double life term at the pen, and says he is lucky to work in the wood shop.

"The first six months I was here I slept and read and slept and tried to stop my nerves from burning me alive," says Plant. "If I didn't have this job I'd die. I really mean it."

Night -- the other half of the clock at Doc's House -- fall quietly.

Inmates filter out of the mess hall and worm their way through the maze of bars and wires to their tiers. Back in their cells, some men flick on television sets -- which officials allowed them to purchase as one solution to prison idleness.

In a dirty little room on the lower level, a Coppin State College teacher instructs a logic class. The pen's "scared straight" group, Steven Steps, convenes to talk about an upcoming visit of juvenile offenders.

And the "Shepherd of Darkness," as Maj. Bernard Smith, the head night guard, is known, tabulates the latest prisoner count in his tiny corner office.

"You won't see escapes here like what happened in Jessup," says Smith, a gruff man highly regarded by most inmates, who say he is accessible. "The pen is what you call hermetically sealed."

This October night's dispute among inmates concerns the last game of the World Series. Smith props his elbows on the desk in front of him and hears gripes from a line of inmates who are angry over not being allowed to see the game on the tube.

"Only half of each wing can leave cell areas to see the game," Smith says for the fifth time. "It ain't my rule, but I have to enforce it. If too many of you all convene in one place, we can't watch you."

"That ain't cool, man, you know it," replies one man. "There ain't diddly goes on here worth doing 'cept watching sports."

"In '72," explains Smith, "two white boys were raped and beat up by guys from another wing. My bosses said then we had to separate the blocks. You know how 'that' is."

Smith, who said his 19 years at the pen are "enough to make anyone a drunk," allows a man to use his office phone to call his wife, who is worried about not having enough heating oil to last the winter.

"Everybody's got a crisis now and then," Smith says, "They have wives and kids like everybody else."

And they have life to contend with behind bars. Institutional problems that plagued the pen in the 1960s such as widespread rape, assault and drug dealing, have faded a bit, only to be replace by other troubles.

In the early 1970s, a gang of 16 burly inmates known as "The Family" terrorized Doc's House. Cells were ransacked, and it seemed, says Muslim leader Nabil Abdul-Karim, as if someone was raped or roughed up everyday.

It was during this period that the Muslim movement was born in Maryland Prisons. Today, Muslims account for about one-fifth of the penitentiary population. "We pretty much counteracted everything they [The Family] represented," Abdul-Karim said. "They exist no more."

There has been only one reported rape at Doc's House in the last 13 months. Part of the decline can be attributed to the growth of groups such as the Muslims, who offer security to members.

But perhaps more important, the number of rapes has declined because homosexuality itself has been liberated at Doc's House, much as it has on the outside. Homosexual inmates are less likely to "act macho by day, and get dirty by night," as J. Ray-Bey puts it.

"I'm proud I'm gay, honey. I don't feel oppressed at all," says 39-year-old William (Kitty) Jones, serving a 15-year sentence for forgery and kidnapping. "I make the most of my stay here."

Jones, sporting a wig and orange jogging suit, lives in a single cell on a tier containing a dozen other homosexuals. He calls his cell his "boudoir." a

"I'm accepted as much as anyone else," he says. "I think I'm appreciated because there aren't any females around."

Drugs also are appreciated. Smack, reefers, uppers, downers -- all can be gotten, anywhere and any time, say inmates. Normally, drugs are passed in the open visitors area -- by sweethearts, friends, family. What seems like a long kiss is actually a ballon of smack or money passing from mouth to mouth.

Many inmates stay away from cocaine, however. "Stuff makes you want to [have sex] to much," one prisoner says.

Drugs are also hoarded from the prison's pharmacy, and sold and distributed for either cash or cigarettes -- the normal prison currency. Even so, in the last 10 years drug use at Doc's House has noticeably declined.

"We haven't had an overdose in a good year," says nursing supervisor L. M. McKenzie. "It used to be an everyday thing, it seemed."

Instead, inmates have come up with an array of receipes for cell-made wines and liquors. Nearly every tier at Doc's House is in the business. Tomatoes, potatoes, fruits, sugar and water are smuggled out of the mess hall and dumped into plastic bags, which inmates obtain from the maintenance shop.

The ingredients are tossed into the bags and fermented over a period of time.Inmates call the foul-smelling brew "Jump Steady."

"Everybody wants to see this place, like it's some kind of freak show," complains the beefy warden of Doc's House, George Collins. "Newspapers, television, even high school kids. I have enough trouble just trying to keep the inmates in line."

The phone rings. State Commissioner of Correction Edwin Goodlander wants to talk about an incident at Doc's House involving a nurse and an inmate, Willie Burnett.

"Yessir," Collins says, taking notes on a legal pad. "Well, you know Willie's a notorious kind of guy around here. What he did is what's he's done all the time, except this time was worse.

"He complains about his health and then he sees the nurse," Collins says. "He'll act normal for awhile, then when she gets close enough he sticks his hand up her dress.

"Yessir," Collins says. "Well, when she screamed, he belted her in the nose. Broke it . . . Yessir, he was in leg irons. Thing is, we had guards on him but they were busy doing paperwork."

Collins hangs up the phone. "We don't have enough guards as it is," he sighed. Then something like this happens, they drop their guard a minute, and pfffft -- they're on suspension. Good men, too."