James Barlow Jr., a grin bursting on his youthful face, an old cloth sack slung over his shoulder and his right arm wound around his girl, Gwen, as though he would never let go, trotted down the walk to the high metal fence that had shut him inside for so many months and quietly said, "Open these gates."

With an electrical whir and a final clang, the gates slid open yesterday, and Barlow walked through, suddenly free of the Maryland prison system as one of the 245 inmates granted Christmas commutations by Gov. Harry Hughes.

:"This is our Christmas present," Barlow's girlfriend, Gwen Sigmon, had said minutes before as she sat in a dreary visitors' room with anxious friends, mothers, sisters and children -- all waiting for loved ones at the Brockbridge Correctional Unit near Jessup. The scene was repeated at institutions throughout the state.

The Christmas present came not only from the goodness of the governor's heart, but also from the fullness of the Maryland prison system. The system virtually is bursting at the seams, and state officials are under a federal court order to end overcrowding that was declared unconstitional more than two years ago.

Facing pressure from the courts to cut the prison population, Hughes slightly eased the standards he had set in previous years for the traditional holiday commutations. As a result, hundreds were released in Maryland this year, while only a handful got out early in neighboring states. The inmates released this year have served at least one-fourth of their sentences and are within six months of mandatory release. But despite the relaxed standards, prison officials acknowledged that the commutations will do little in the long run to ease the overcrowding dilemma.

"The commutations are like using a charge account," said Stephen Minnich, the official monitoring overcrowding. "You get a month-and-a-half of relief and then you have to pay the bill."

The 24-year-old Barlow, who had served 10 month of a one-year sentence for possession of drugs, had no thoughts of federal court orders or prison populations as he headed for his Salisbury home. He was thinking only of Christmas shopping, a job waiting for him at an auto body shop, marriage to Gwen and "never coming back to this place again."

The same pledge came from David Lathroum, serving time for violating his probation on an assault charge. Said Lathroum, "This is the most wonderful day of my life."

"I'm 22. It's my first time in here and I hope it's my last," he said solemnly, as two of his younger sisters looked on beaming and visibly shaking with excitement.

But it was not all smiles and delight in the little yellow waiting room behind the fences and razor-edged wire. Joan Whitener, of Colesville, who was waiting for her stepson, Michael, clearly was worried about his past conduct and his future.

"I'm sure it will be nice for him [to be home for Christmas]," Whitener said. "But [what he has done in the past] makes the family so miserable, I just hope he does the right thing. I'd like to see him get himself together." j

At the Montgomery County Detention Center overlooking Route 270, a 35-year-old prisoner gave his name as David Griz got his first hint of impending release this morning as he delivered food in Quarter 2 -- work to which he had just been assigned.

"How about that?" said a guard cryptically. "Two days on the job and you're getting fired already."

Griz had been rejected for parole only a month ago and was puzzled by the guard's remark. Shortly afterward, there was another clue: A fellow inmate passed him a cigar. Griz protested he didn't smoke cigars. But the inmate assured him, "Well, you'll be smoking one by the end of the day."

By now, Griz was suspicious and sought out a guard to get the straight scoop. It was true -- Griz, who ten months ago began serving time for attempted burglary, was one of 12 among the prison's 300 inmates who were freed yesterday.

"I broke down crying right there," Griz recalled shortly after passing through the sliding metal gates that mark the start of the outside world.

Freed prisoners, tearful families and girlfriends, and prison guards mingled yesterday in the visitors' reception center as the 12 men were rousted into normal life. The good-natured cajolery of a farewell party filled the air.

"Take care of yourself," 29-year-old Mike Welch shouted to a guard he had seen often during his year-long stay at the center. "How's it feel to look at me on the outside?"

"See you next Christmas," the guard deadpanned.

"No you won't!" came the reply.

Some of the men had freedom fantasies not entirely in keeping with the spirit of Noel. Welch, who said he was a Florida construction company manager who came North and "got in trouble" described his plans: "Get drunk, get laid."

In jail, however, all of the men had been model prisoners with less than six months to serve. Many had good words for the prison staff -- friendly guards had tipped off some of the men in advance so they would be careful to stay out of trouble.

Griz, who calls Rockville his home, said he had never read a book before coming to the Detention Center. Now he has obtained his high school diploma and begun studying law.

"I still can't believe it's happening," he said as he waited in the rain for a ride to his apartment in Gaithersburg. "I'm going to sit down down and drink a beer. From there I don't know."