LIKE AN INMATE at Jessup, a legislator in Annapolis who mentions prisons these days has a hard time finishing a sentence. Anything resembling rational debate about fiscal or moral equivalents of reasonable corrections policies generally gives way to personality conflicts and political grandstanding. Everyone expected controversy when Gov. Harry Hughes selected Gordon C. Kamka to be Maryland's corrections chief, for Mr. Kamka had never been known as a calm, build-more-prisons administrator. He believes the state should be imprisoning fewer people -- which, before even hearing the rest of his views, is enough to flush out all sorts of lawmakers to exaggerate and criticize his position.

Even before his nomination won approval, legislators were making it appear -- incorrectly -- that Mr. Kamka advocated the indiscriminate release of criminals, whether dangerous or not. That was -- and is -- nonsense. What the governor and his prisons chief were supporting was some balance in which dangerous criminals are kept away from society and others who have broken laws are dealt with by means of work-release programs, tightly supervised paroles and placement in smaller neighborhood facilities. As Mr. Kamka has noted, this approach requires sophisticated community facilities as well as improved screening, placement and release procedures.

But it also requires something else: some sympathy in the legislature at appropriations time. And if Gov. Hughes is serious about winning necessary support there, he had better step in and help out -- for Mr. Kamka's considerable talents don't seem to include capturing the hearts of key committee members in Annapolis. His blunt, argumentative style has been reciprocated to the point where policies and proposals are getting lost in all the posturing.

Specifically, money is needed to build five community adult rehabilitation centers, a new medium-security prison and a minimum-security facility. These are all part of an important plan to cut down the number of prisoners currently crammed into the decrepit dungeons that now pass for state institutions. Not only is an end to this cruel and unusual punishment long overdue, but any postponements of these projects will simply end up costing far more later. The state legislators should recognize this without any prodding from the administration. But if they don't like hearing it from Mr. Kamka, then Gov. Hughes should step in and repeat the message in terms they can accept.