UNLESS THERE'S A clear threat to the neighborhood or to someone being held hostage, uprisings in prisons attract something less than rapt attention from the general public. What goes on "inside" just isn't thought to matter much, so long as it doesn't spread "outside"--which is why politicians tend to take more comfort in a get-tough stance on prison policies than anything resembling an enlightened view of how incarceration and release should be balanced. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, whose early attempts at a reasonable approach suffered from loose supervision, has now pushed the get-tough button for the election season and--presto--inmates around the state have become more than a little restless.

In the last month, there have been incidents at the overcrowded Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup--each linked to inmate protests against stricter policies recently imposed by state officials. No, the answers in these cases should not be reflexive cave-ins to inmate misbehavior; still, the incidents should prompt Gov. Hughes and prison officials to re-examine whether their shift from one extreme to another has not been too drastic.

That more cells are needed in Maryland is now acknowledged by all but the most unbending disciples of the free-almost-everybody school. Gov. Hughes himself has decided that more beds are necessary, and he is right: court orders or not, double- celling in Hagerstown has got to stop. And until it does, the imposition of too many restrictions on inmates is likely to be explosive. Changes in visitors' hours, punishments for minor in-house infractions and the cutting-off of too many inmates from work- release programs are actions that--if too harshly imposed--can set off otherwise avoidable uprisings.

It is not a matter of "coddling" or letting loose the violent offenders from whom the public must have protection. But simply packing prisons and then building more of them is not a sensible approach. Work-release, parole and other comparable efforts do have a place in the system for nonviolent offenders and others who show some genuine promise of being law-abiding members of society. The difficulty with this is that it requires sophisticated supervision and better administration than has been evident so far in Maryland. That, in turn, requires a governor willing to sell a moderate, reasonable prison policy to legislators whose tolerance for tolerance in prisons has been strained so many ways by extreme policies up to now.