FOR AN UNCOMFORTABLE while there, it look as if Maryland Gov. Harry Huges would remain a prisoner of his own ill-supervised corrections policies. But nothing concentrates attention quite like a string of escapes, walkoffs and charges of crimes by inmates in a pre-release program. The governor now seems to be restoring order in the cell-blocks if not in the State House, where the prisons issue had become the most serious political crisis of the Huges administration. The danger at this point is that the administrative ineptitude that Mr. Huges is finally moving to eliminate will be used by showboating politicians as an excuse to kill off every last inkling of enlightened corrections policy.

Work-release, for example, is more than just a term used to describe violent criminals out on a state-sanctioned, law-breaking spree every day. This situation is called an administrative mess; it occurs when corrections officials aren't paying attention -- and the remedy is to turn these officials into ex-officials, which is what has happened in Annapolis.

There are other steps that Gov. Hughes is taking: Work-release programs have stopped, temporarily, so that there can be a review of every inmate in the system. If more inmates wind up in tighter security facilities and this conflicts with court orders against overcrowding, so be it -- at least until other facilities can be opened. Also scheduled are reviews of how the degrees of security are determined for various inmates and how inmate discipline is set and handled.

When all of these operations get out of hand, no corrections policies are going to look good. But instead of a panicky rush to build and fill up mammoth prisons with everybody from jaywalkers to rapists, the responsible course for the governor and the legislators is to work between sessions on an approach that ties tight administrative controls with flexible, well-monitored policies of incarceration and release. Gov. Hughes has indicated his willingness to admit failures and consider changes, and legislators should respond reflectively to the offer.