Six years has passed since that night in east Baltimore when Theodore Cotton pointed a pocketknife at a cab driver's throat and robbed him of $23. More than five years had gone by since Cotton began serving his time at "The Cut."

This was his last hour behind bars. He bequeathed his scratchy portable radio to the man who shared his five-by-eight-foot cell, said goodbye to several tier mates, took a cold, morning shower, initialed a batch of release papers and filed through a final electric door out of "The Cut" and into the world.

He did not look back.

"Five years, four months," Cotton said over and over during the journey up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to his Baltimore home. "The Cut" is so bad you'll do anything not to go back."

Despite his determination to stay out of trouble, Cotton -- a gangly man who shed 15 pounds during his stay at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup -- has a one-in-three chance of returning to prison, based on the state's 36 percent rate of recidivism.

In Cotton's case, the odds are even worse because he does not have a job or any leads on jobs.

But there would be time enough later to ponder that. Now, after a five-year hiatus, Cotton was coming home, to see his family and drink a real cup of coffee.

He would also take in that picture he'd heard advertised over the radio, "Disco Godfather," which had just opened up at the Hippodrome Theater around the corner from Leon's Pig Pen in his east Baltimore haunts.

In this tour of the Maryland prison system, which concludes today, a visit was made to the system's front gate, where officials juggle over 5,000 new inmates a year in an attempt to find slots for them in the state's overcrowded prisons.

Stops were also made at Doc's House, the grim state penitentiary in Baltimore; "The Cut" and the Patuxent Institution in Jessup and the racially troubled state Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, also known as Hillbilly Heaven.

In this, the final segment of the tour, several calls will be made, including one with people such as Cotton who serve tough times in the prison system and return to their own communities with little or no preparation.

A stop will also be made at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center in White Flint, humbly nestled in the shadow of Washington's most exclusive suburban shopping center. There, at the national model facility, inmates who committed crimes in the county serve their time in the county, work in the county and pay their own room and board.

Last, a look at the critics and leaders of the prisons of Maryland, their attempts to push the system toward more community-based facilities such as Montgomery's, and the overall effort to drag Maryland, as one expert puts it, "out of the Dark Ages."

Tom King is a disarming, 26-year-old habitual nonviolent criminal. His past offenses included larceny and forgery. His latest conviction was for breaking and entering. Actually King -- not his real name -- was caught last year attempting to crack two safes in a private junk yard in Gaithersburg.

At the time of his arrest King was working on and off as a dishwasher in a Rockville cafe and was using drugs heavily. For his previous convictions King spent time in the state system, at Doc's House mainly.

"When you get outta that place," he says, "all you can think about is getting even."

This time a county judge sent King to a discreet little brick building in a business park across Nicholson Lane from high-fashion Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor in White Flint. Inside the bright-lit building adjacent to a private racquet club, King found an almost rooming-house-like atmosphere.

Here inmates are called "residents" and their comfortable 80-square-foot cells are called "rooms." The rambling structure includes a cafeteria and a number of recreation rooms and lounges. The staffing ratio here of inmates to management -- including a bevy of psychologists, counselors and work-release coordinators -- is 2.4 to 1.

King was immediately presented with a work program and rigid rules and regulations to follow. Every week he must meet with a psychological counselor, learn how to balance a checking account, among other things, in "life skills" courses, and participate in drug and alcohol counseling.

In the meantime he works "hard as hell."

The center got a job for him as a construction worker with a local firm. After four months, King is now a foreman. He earns $4.50 an hour and says, "I found out I could do something with my hands besides open cash registers." "

Twenty percent of his income goes to pay for his room and food at the center.

There are 75 other people here, including eight women. Their convictions range from murder and armed robbery to drug and probation violations. Most are younger than 30 and 90 percent never had to undergo "the trauma," as Kent Mason, the center's director, puts it, of entering the state prison system.

Their crimes occurred in Montgomery. Their sentences are served in Montgomery.

This year, more than 300 county criminals will pass through the center. Since its beginning in 1968, more than 1,500 have gone through and earned $1.6 million. And less than 8 percent have returned to prison for subsequent convictions.

"These are the people who are cluttering up the state system. They go through and come out worse than when they went in," Mason says. "We've stopped that process here."

In 1972 the state prison system had 5,000 inmates. About 150 of them were from Montgomery. But while the state system's population has mushroomed to over 8,000 in the last seven years, Montgomery's contribution to it has actually decreased to fewer than 100 -- primarily because of the pre-release center.

"No matter what happens," Mason says, "a criminal will return to the community where his crime occurred. What we're saying here is keep that man and rehabilitate him in the community."

Other people are saying it, too, including the state's Secretary of Public Safety and Corrections, Gordon Kamka. As a matter of fact, the Maryland legislature has been saying it ever since 1971, when the General Assembly mandated that the system move toward the construction of more community-based fcilities. But when it came time for the localities to decide to build, "the people said anywhere but our back yard," one official says, and the program never got off the ground.

But now, in Kamka's mind at least, the time has come.

In his $70 million legislative package for next year -- yet to be approved by Gov. Harry Hughes -- Kamka has asked for $38 million for the construction of local rehabilitation centers which would resemble the Montgomery model. Since 1971 the state has offered to fund 75 percent of that construction. In Kamka's new budget the state would fund total construction and operating costs if the localities agree to accept inmates serving three years or less.

"Why have a man who's got a one-year sentence go through the state system when the local jurisdictions could do a better job of rehabilitation and at a lower cost?" Kamka asks.

Currently the state is building, renovating or constructing three major additions to present facilities: a new 400-bed prison to house the Reception and Diagnostic Center, a 500-bed addition to the House of Correction in Jessup, and a 128-bed addition to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

Kamka -- and Hughes -- believe that is enough. The governor has rejected plans, a decade in the making, to build a new 890-bed maximum and minimum security prison to relieve overcrowding. That decision has angered many people who feel Kamka and Hughes care more about the comfort of criminals than the safety of the public.

"My answer to Hughes and Kamka is make damn sure you have room to handle criminals who should be incarcerated before you come to talk to us about community correctional programs in our neighborhoods," fumes Anne Arundel County Executive Robert A. Pascal.

"The point is, the state is either in the corrections business or it isn't," he adds. "Sure, they'll give us all the money we need for local incarceration . . . But that's just passing the buck. We still get the criminals."

"The government has a duty to serious ly consider building a new prison," adds Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. "Unless there is someplace to incarcerate the radically hard-core criminals then we'll all find out that crime certainly does pay."

Legislators, corrections officials, judges, parole agents, probation officers, guards -- from the top of the corrections scale to the rank and file -- are lining up on both sides of the issue. As Murphy describes it, "There are those who feel the system should be more punitive, and those who feel it ought to be more rehabilitative."

In Maryland that split, according to William G. Nagel of the American Foundation Institute of Corrections, is extraordinarily sharp.

"There's quite a deep streak of schizophrenia there, as far as corrections is concerned," Nagel says. "Maryland has a vague taste of the south and some progressiveness . . . . The prospect of the fight there is intriguing."

Often caught in the squeeze between court orders to reduce overcrowding and public outcries over excessive leniency toward criminals are the state's seven beleaguered and embattled parole commissioners, whose job is to decide when and how inmates shall be released from state prisons.

"It's a heck of a vise," says Parole Commission Chairman Henry P. Turner.

While parole rates have actually declined in the last 10 years, the commissioners were sharply attacked after they released 1,000 inmates early from the system in an effort to keep pace with federal deadlines for reducing prison populations.

About 10 percent of those inmates have been convicted of subsequent crimes.

The commissioners travel throughout the state system four days a week to review inmates and their eligibility for parole. An inmate has a right to a hearing after he has served one-fifth of his sentence.

The paperwork the commissioners lug around with them is immense. The weekend is the only time they have to look over a two-foot tall stack of files pertaining to the 70-plus cases they will hear the following week.

"To say we don't know a whole lot about some of the guys before we meet them is an understatement, yes," says Commissioner Herbert Matz.

Matz and Commissioner Isaiah Larkins this day are at The Cut, in a dark little room outside the prison recreation hall.

The man they are interviewing had been through the process four years ago when he was originally paroled after serving time for manslaughter.

He was returned to The Cut for violating terms of his parole. He was convicted of stealing a gun from a taxi driver.

After questioning the man for five minutes Larkins asks him is he has anything to add.

"Well, like I say, you know . . . I didn't steal that pistol. I bought it."

"Do you have any children?"

"Yes sir, I got three . . . The mothers are different, though."

"You ever married?"

"No."

"You still drink, smoke reefers, pop them pills?"

"Hell no, I mean no sir. I quit all that."

"What will you do if we parole you today?"

"Well," the man says, "I'd go back to my landlord, where I was working before. I dusted and cleaned for her . . . I want to go home."

The inmate left the room while the commissioners deliberated.

"Well, it's pretty clear his work record is sporadic," Matz says. "He has quite a bit of drugs and alcohol in his background."

"Comes from Fulton area in Baltimore," Larkins adds. "Jeez, it's a wonder he's survived this long."

The commissioners have a list of 12 criteria to guide them in their decisions, from an inmate's prior criminal record to his "attitude toward society, discipline and authority."

The factors are not weighted, however, and ultimately, according to Matz, "it all comes down to gut feeling."

"If there's a margin for error at all, we are conservative, on the side of public safety," Larkins says.

The inmate returns to the room and Larkins turns on his Sony to record their decision.

"We aren't going to parole you today. We want you to apply for readmission to the pre-release system."

"That mean I'm gonna be in the system for another nine months," the prisoner sighs.

"Yes. Furthermore, we want you to enroll in drug and alcohol counseling once you get there."

Larkins flips a piece of paper, looks up and says, "We'll see you in another nine months."

Out in the corridor, the inmate lights a cigarette and pounds his hand against a barred door.

"Really thought I'd make it," he said.

As the car carrying him home sped onto North Avenue in Baltimore, Theodore Cotton leaned forward in his seat and eyed the warehouses, corner taverns, run-down tenements and gas stations that swept by the window.

"My main place," he said.

It was on these streets and back alleys that Cotton learned to shoot craps. It was in assorted bars that he learned to shoot eight-ball for five bucks a ball.

The car stopped at an old row house across the street from Greenmount Cemetery, five blocks north of Doc's House -- where Cotton's father has worked for 17 years.

He and his father exchanged greetings and both men went inside for a fresh cup of coffee.

"You ask me if I'm hopeful about him.Yes, I'm hopeful," Joe Cotton said. "But I expect the worst. My son is 35 years old. He has problems with his health. It's kind of late for him to start a new life.

"His life is in the streets," Cotton said, sipping his coffee. "For about four months he'll be happy to get out of "The Cut." He'll help out around the house.

"Then, he'll get irritable. He'll upset things around the house. Then he's out of our hands."

"No way, man," Cotton said to his father. "Listen, I been to "the Cut."

The Cut. I'm gonna stay outta everybody's way now."

"I've seen how the prisons have been working lately," said Joe Cotton. "The food is better there than I could buy for my own family . . . I fought in Italy during World War II and met the Chinese in Korea.

"My son," he lamented, "don't know what tough is."

"He don't really understand," Cotton whispered, greeting his brother Charlie and a nephew he has never seen before.

"I'll get work. I'll go to Manpower and all them places. I'm gonna stay outta trouble . . . .

"I know the ropes, now. Really." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, resident Allen Mowell relaxes in his room at the center. Inmate Billy Spears and two staff members videotape a mock job interview; Picture 3, Gordon Kamka, Maryland secretary of public safety and corrections, whose new budget proposal calls for $38 million for centers similar to the Montgomery County model facility.; Picture 4, Theodore Cotton, as he steps outside 'The Cut' and into the world for the first time in five years and four months. Photos by James Thresher and Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post