In the midst of criticism by a human relations commission and several public officials about the number of rapes and sexual assaults in the Prince George's County Detention Center, center director Arnett Gaston said yesterday that he is "sensitive to the problem" and believes that "one sexual assault is one too many."

During a press conference at the jail, Gaston said that the "fundamental problem" leading to sexual assaults is crowding in the prison, which was built for 143 inmates but currently houses 450 men and women. That problem will be alleviated in a month, he said, when 100 inmates move into a temporary facility under construction that will house inmates charged with misdemeanors.

He presented no further plans to remedy the problem.

Gaston made his remarks in response to a series of articles in The Washington Post, which reported that gang rapes and sexual assaults occur in the county jail about 12 times a week, according to guards and inmates. A number of the men assaulted are in jail awaiting trial, some on such charges as shoplifting, driving while intoxicated and trespassing.

While calling the estimate of a dozen rapes and assaults "unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination," Gaston said jail incident reports show inmates report rapes or sexual assaults about once a week. In the Post stories, Gaston had said he was aware of only eight reports of rape last year and six the previous year. Inmates and guards said the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the county Human Relations Commission, John d'Eustachio, said yesterday the commission will begin investigating this week the "conditions that allow the rapes to occur" in the county jail. He said the commission expects to interview the rape victims and rapists mentioned in the newspaper series as well as jail guards and jail officials. Then the commission will make recommendations to the jail and the county executive, he said.

County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, who appointed Gaston head of the jail three years ago, could not be reached for comment. His press secretary, Clark Gagliardi, said Hogan was shaking hands in Garrett County as part of his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Hogan's secretaries said his office received numerous calls yesterday from residents concerned about the rapes and sexual assaults. County Council members and judges also reported receiving many calls.

County Council member Parris Glendening, the front-runner candidate for county executive, said he met with Gaston for one hour Monday and told him, "We have to seek a system that will bring them sexual assaults and rapes down to zero. We have to get away from the mentality that this is the normal course of prison life." Glendening said that if he is elected county executive, whether he appoints Gaston head of the jail will depend on "whether Gaston subscribes to my philosophy of moving toward zero incidents."

Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia yesterday criticized Gaston's earlier statement that fewer than 10 rapes and sexual assaults occur each year in the county jail. "The ship's going down," Femia said, "and he's on a bridge perfectly dry and doesn't know why everyone's gurgling."

Femia added, however, that Gaston inherited a number of problems at the jail.

Guards and inmates say the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults occur in cells beyond the view of guards who sit in control booths. Even when inmates scream for help, guards often do not respond until it is too late. Some guards have said the problem could be minimized if they walked into the cell blocks more often and if there were more guards to patrol the prison.

Yesterday, Gaston said he did not have plans to increase the number of guards who watch male inmates. He also said he did not plan to increase the number of times each day that a group of guards walks through the cell blocks. Currently, guards patrol the cell blocks once every eight hours, to count the inmates, and occasionally in response to emergencies.

Gaston said he is preparing a report for judges, elected officials and the media to "show what the reality of the situation is.

"We wish to provide all the available evidence," he added in a prepared statement, "so that the wrong impressions, achieved through exaggerations, misquotes, omissions and impressions can be placed in their appropriate perspective . . . "