IS MARYLAND playing musical cells with its prisoners, or is overcrowding at the state penitentiary actually ending as the courts have ordered? The answer, like the state's efforts, isn't ready yet, even though critics of the Hughes administration's policies from all sides have been quick to find small faults with the initial results. To hear it from some critics -- Those legislators and others who oppose even the most careful efforts to release certain non-dangerous prisoners -- the state is being peppered with wild-eyed rapists, muggers and maniacs. The opposite school -- those who have been suing and calling for an immediate end to any overcrowding -- is claiming that the administration is stalling for time and fudging its numbers.

All it takes for the first group to be enforced in its beliefs is a report that someone who had been granted an early release from prison has just been charged with -- not convicted of -- a violent crime. What they fail to take account of is that the overall rate of convictions of early-release prisoners for new crimes may be less than 3 percent; or, to turn that statistic around just once, perhaps 97 percent of the early-release prisoners may have stayed out of serious trouble after a year.

As for charges that the state's efforts to end overcrowding have not been swift enough, the fact is that the worst of bad conditions at the Maryland Penitentiary -- the housing of two inmates in a single tiny cell -- does appear to have ended in the main housing area. At this point the argument of lawyers for the inmates seems to be that the state's figure for the capacity at the penitentiary is perhaps 25 spaces higher than it should be.

What all of this suggests is that Gov. Harry Hughes is making gradual progress in ending overcrowding in the state's prisons, improving parole policies and moving toward more sophisticated community facilities to complement the prisons. There have been, and will be, missed deadlines in meeting court orders on overcrowding; right now, construction troubles are likely to mean an extension of a Jan. 1 court deadline for improving conditions at the correctional institutional in Hagerstown. Still, slowly but surely, Maryland is moving to the forefront nationally as a state with enlightened -- if not always immediately popular -- prison policies.