MARYLAND Gov. Harry Hughes held another press conference yesterday and succeeded once again in making himself vague on a host of legislative questions that need some clear stands. The governor's style does keep the lawmakers either guessing or disbelieving as they continue their mad whirl of ax murders up and down the state budget. But fortunately, there was one issue on which the governor had been uncharacteristically adamant this year -- his opposition to any new prison construction -- that he is now approaching with some welcome flexibility.

Until now, Gov. Hughes had stood four-square behind the view of his corrections chief, Gordon C. Kamka, that no more prisons should be built and that the state has other, better ways to meet overcrowding. In the opposite corner, legislators of the lock-'em-all-up-in-big-new-prisons school of penology have been beating the drums for prison construction. The sensible approach, lost in the political cross fire, lies somewhere in between -- and that is what the governor finally supported yesterday.

Mr. Kamka is not the mad bleeding-heart free-them-all softy that his opponents in the legislature would have you believe. But neither is the case for additional prison construction an entirely medieval approach to the serious overcrowding in state facilities. Expanded, judicious use of parole and probation -- with the focus on non-dangerous prisoners -- makes sense. So does a network of community adult rehabilitation centers. But continuing the double-celling of inmates in cramped quarters or increasing the number of dangerous dormitory arrangements is no substitute for new facilities.

The political and practical challenge for all the actors in Annapolis is to come up with a prison policy that includes whatever construction is demonstrably necessary to meet court standards of humane treatment. At the same time, there must be support for the enlightened policies that may at once reduce the prison population and increase the chances of returning some inmates to productive lives in their communities. Given all the other legislative issues in disarray, Gov. Hughes and the members of the General Assembly are right in deciding to tackle these complicated prison questions between sessions. They should be willing to compromise in the interests of a safe and reasonable prisons policy.