When William Howard of Annapolis was sentenced to life plus 50 years for the rape and kidnaping of a Prince George's County woman in 1972, he was told he would have to spend at least 22 years in jail before becoming eligible for parole. But then Howard got lucky.

Howard was admitted to the Patuxent Institution here, a sprawling prison surrounded by barbed wire and the only one in the country that has the authority to release prisoners before they serve one-fifth of their sentences, the usual prerequisite for being eligible for parole. Last year, 14 years before he normally would have been eligible, Howard was released.

"The general feeling was that he would be able to make it on the street and had worked through the problem," says Norma Gluckstern, the director of Patuxent.

But Howard apparently had problems that were more deep-seated than anyone at Patuxent realized. Within a year of leaving Patuxent, he was convicted of raping three women in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, prompting a controversy over the prison's power to release inmates early.

The administrators of Patuxent, who have the power to parole any inmate after he has been in the jail for one year, point out that Howard's behavior after leaving Patuxent was unusual. They say that the ability to release prisoners early is an important part of the prison's mission to rehabilitate inmates.

Patuxent is the only prison in Maryland where rehabilitation is considered more important than punishment, and where prisoners are given psychotherapy to help them rehabilitate themselves. That power dates back to the 1950s, when a coalition of judges, lawyers and psychiatrists persuaded the legislature to allow the institution to treat juveniles who had the potential to be rehabilitated. In 1977, the legislature also gave Patuxent the authority to handle adults whose crimes are based on emotional or intellectual deficiencies that may allow them to be rehabilitated with psychological treatment.

But to prosecutors, state legislators and some victims of crime, Patuxent's ability to give prisoners their freedom years before they normally would be eligible for parole is a glaring loophole in the criminal justice system.

"How," asks Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr., "are we punishing these people?"

The issue of rehabilitation versus punishment is an old one, but it is debated with particular intensity these days in Maryland. Under former secretary of public safety Gordon Kamka, the state's correctional system developed a reputation for being too soft on criminals, and the continual controversy eventually led Gov. Harry Hughes last spring to dismiss Kamka and replace him with an administrator considered to be more hard line.

Patuxent, with its emphasis on psychiatric treatment and its power to grant earlier-than-normal paroles for its prisoners who are deemed rehabilitated, has been a particular target. During each of the past two years, the debate surfaced in the Judiciary Committee of the General Assembly, where Del. Elmer F. Hagner Jr. of Annapolis sponsored a bill that would have put an end to the early release of such prisoners. Every year, the bill has been killed in committee, but that is not stopping the Maryland State's Attorneys Association from backing a similar bill this year.

What is fueling the state's attorneys' interest in this year's bill is Ronald Ellis, who last spring murdered six persons in one of the most highly publicized crimes in recent Prince George's County history. Ellis, 34, who was sentenced last month to five life sentences for the murders in his Camp Springs home, has asked for admission to Patuxent, Marshall says.

Marshall does not want Ellis to get into Patuxent, fearing that the institution will release him before he is eligible for parole at the age of 94. "Some people have forfeited their right to be treated that way," says Marshall. So Marshall last month wrote a letter to Gluckstern, Patuxent's director, asking that Ellis be banned from the institution--or at least not be released from it in less than 60 years.

Gluckstern responded with a letter of her own, saying that she could not make Marshall any promises. As a result of Gluckstern's reply, Marshall persuaded the Maryland State's Attorneys Association to support a bill that would prevent convicts sentenced to life in prison from being released from Patuxent before their normal parole dates.

The attempt to keep certain criminals out of Patuxent is not new. Two years ago, Richard Hogan of Anne Arundel County urged the Judiciary Committee to pass legislation that would prevent the early release from Patuxent of the killer of his two young daughters. The killer, Stuart Lee Kreiner, then 17, was sentenced to life in prison in 1978 and was admitted to Patuxent in 1979. He is still there.

"You have no way of knowing what we've gone through," Hogan said in urging the committee to pass the legislation. "We had two vibrant, beautiful children. They are snuffed out."

Ever since Patuxent was built in 1955, the 610-bed facility has had the authority to parole a prisoner whenever its psychiatrists and social workers felt the prisoner was ready to reenter society--whether it was before the inmate was eligible for parole or years after the inmate had served his sentence.

That power always was a controversial one, but until recently the focus of the controversy was over the institution's power to keep inmates beyond the term of their sentences. Unlike the state's Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, which is a hospital that houses criminals defined as insane, Patuxent's mandate is to treat persons who are judged to be marginally competent to live in the outside world.

In 1977, the state legislature voted to force Patuxent to release prisoners once they had served their sentences and gave it the authority to treat adults--and soon afterward the focus of the controversy shifted to the institution's power to release prisoners before they otherwise would have been eligible for parole.

But Patuxent is an early ticket to freedom for fewer than 1 percent of the jail's inmates every year. Since 1977, Patuxent has released 13 inmates before their normal parole dates. Of the 13, two were murderers who had been sentenced to life in prison. One of them served seven years, which is at least five years less than he would have served in any of the other jails in Maryland. The other served nine years, which is at least three years less than he would have served in any other Maryland jail.

Of the 11 other men who were released early, the longest sentence had been given to rapist William Howard. The next longest sentence went to a robber, Gluckstern says. The robber was sentenced to 30 years and served five years of his sentence, says Gluckstern, who added that the time is only one year less than he would have served in any of the other jails in Maryland. Similarly, a murderer who was sentenced to 30 years served five years of his sentence instead of six years, the minimum time he would have served in any other jail.

To gain admission to Patuxent, a prisoner in Maryland must put his name on the jail's waiting list of 150 inmates and then go through a six-month evaluation by the institution's psychiatrists and social workers. The psychiatrists and social workers admit inmates whom they consider "emotionally unbalanced," says Gluckstern, and whose crimes seem to have been the result of psychological problems.

They do not admit persons who are suffering from severe mental disorders or who have long criminal histories. The psychiatrists also must be convinced that the prisoner is likely to respond favorably--that is, change his behavior--as a result of group psychotherapy.

"We take inmates who we feel we can help become productive members of society," says Gluckstern.

Most of the jail's inmates are murderers, rapists and armed robbers. They have a parole hearing each year before an eight-member board of psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers and sociologists. The board members, some of whom work at Patuxent and some of whom do not, must reach a majority decision to release a prisoner early. In making its decision, the board considers whether the inmate has shown that he can hold a job, understand the motivations behind his past criminal behavior and control his actions. The board also takes into consideration the inmate's sentence and the circumstances of the crime.

Parole hearings consist of board members reviewing the inmate's file and interviewing the inmate for a half hour. The board members' favorite question, says Gluckstern, is to ask the inmate to describe his role in the crime. "That way we learn how honest they are and whether they can take responsibility for their actions," says Gluckstern, who is on the board. "If they miss a few facts, we know they're not ready."

To help inmates leave Patuxent, psychologists and social workers at the jail provide each inmate with a "treatment plan" that sets certain goals for the inmate for the year, like finishing another year of school in the institution or learning how to become a carpenter in the vocational shop. Inmates who meet their goals eventually are allowed to work outside the institution--something that does not happen at other prisons--although they continue to live at Patuxent until they are paroled.

In addition, inmates at Patuxent undergo three hours each week of group therapy, led by a staff psychiatrist. In those sessions, inmates try to gain insights into the factors that led them to commit their crimes. Once they understand their motivations, Gluckstern says, they will begin to take responsibility for their actions and will be less likely to commit crimes once they are out of jail.

"We want them to come to understand what brought them to jail," says Gluckstern. "A lot of inmates who don't come to Patuxent always think it was someone else's fault."

But whether Patuxent is successful in its mission to rehabilitate prisoners is another matter. Institution spokesman Liz Ritter says Patuxent usually produces good citizens, pointing out that only 10 percent of the jail's inmates who leave Patuxent commit new crimes--much lower than the 50 percent recidivism rate for the rest of Maryland's jails.

But Patuxent has been known to make mistakes--particularly when it releases prisoners early. Besides Howard, another former prisoner, Charles Wantland, committed serious crimes after leaving Patuxent. Wantland raped and murdered 12-year-old Donald Henley of Clinton one month after he was released from Patuxent in 1977. At Patuxent, Wantland served five years of a 30-year-sentence for the murder of a Baltimore man, which is at least one year less than he would have served in any other jail.

Gluckstern offers this explanation for Patuxent's mistakes: "This paroling prisoners is an inexact science. We're making judgment calls and occasionally we make mistakes."

Under a bill being sponsored by State Sen. Edward Conroy (D-Prince George's) at the 1982 session of the legislature, the scope of Patuxent's power would be limited by preventing the jail from admitting persons sentenced to life in prison. Gluckstern says she hopes the bill fails: "We would close out options for some people we could help," she says.

Forensic psychiatrist Richard Ratner, a consultant to St. Elizabeths Hospital, agrees. "There are people who are amenable to psychotherapy and it would be unwise to close the door on the possibility of giving people like that the opportunity to get out."

Meanwhile, Gluckstern is offering an alternative. The jail, she says, would be willing to refuse admission to persons sentenced to life in prison until they had served a number of years in other state jails.

"That way," she says, "Patuxent could be seen as a resource to the whole criminal justice system rather than as a loophole in the system.