James Earl Ray was stabbed 22 times yesterday by fellow inmates he said "snuck up behind me" at Brushy Mountain State Prison, where Ray is serving a 99-year sentence for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ray was reported in stable condition in nearby Oak Ridge after surgery. His wife, Anna, said the attack had left Ray looking like he was in a "fight with a bear and lost."

Ray, 53, who has tried several times to escape from prison, was wounded in the head, chest and arm and required 77 stitches in a hour of surgery, officials said.

Authorities were holding three black and two white prisoners as suspects. Officials said the motive in the attack was not known, but Ray's wife dismissed speculation that it was racially motivated, saying her husband has black friends as well as white.

Ray, 53, said he was attacked by four men armed with a 12-inch knife fashioned from a window brace in the prison library where Ray goes for legal research. Authorities detained a fifth suspect because he was in the library at the time of the incident.

Ray pleaded guilty to killing King on a Memphis motel balcony in 1968.

Mrs. Ray, 34, an artist who married her husband in prison in 1978, visited him at the hospital and later told reporters she had seen Ray Saturday and warned him "to be careful" because she feared for his life.