In mid-October, after Maryland's attorney general issued a scathing report on conditions at the state penitentiary after the slaying of a guard, prisons chief Frank A. Hall publicly called for the decrepit facility to be torn down and replaced.

But last week, Hall persuaded a committee studying prison overcrowding to recommend to the governor a far less ambitious renovation of the Baltimore maximum security institution, parts of which date to the administration of President James Madison.

Hall's turnabout, apparently under pressure from Gov. Harry Hughes, could well serve as a symbol of the correctional policies of the Hughes administration. [Meanwhile, Maryland's speaker of the house said the legislature should deny the correction division part of its operating budget pending a prison improvement plan.] In six years, under three public safety secretaries, the Hughes administration has swung from "ultra liberal to ultra conservative to take your guess," said one official who has worked with the department for years.

The latest administrator to grapple with Maryland's severely overcrowded and historically troubled prisons, Hall arrived 18 months ago to become secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, bringing impressive credentials and a promise to put the correctional system on an even philosophical keel. To date, his imprint remains unclear.

To his many detractors in the legislature and his own department, Hall has fallen disappointingly short of the expectations that greeted his appointment. With Hall at the helm, the critics said, the prison system is drifting under an uncertain pilot who is unable to chart a clear philosophical course. Hall, they said, is not a roll-up-the-shirtsleeves, take-charge kind of administrator, which they believe is what the system in its present crisis state demands.

To his defenders, the most important of whom is Hughes, Hall is doing an able job in one of the toughest and most demanding posts in state government, one that is a traditional legislative whipping boy. "It's a lightning rod position," observed Sen. Frank Komenda, chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees Hall's department. "He is working very diligently at it and is doing as well as can be expected in a damn tough job."

Hall himself argues that his negative reviews stem from a misunderstanding of his brand of management, which is more cerebral than that of past secretaries who played a direct role in overseeing the prisons. "I don't expect to run the day-to-day operations," he said. "Agency heads are hired to do those kind of things."

Even those who are most critical of Hall recognize the inherent difficulties of his job. Maryland's third largest department, with 7,800 employes and a $269 million budget, includes such agencies as the state police and Division of Parole and Probation, but is dominated by the Division of Correction, which accounts for nearly half of the budget and staff, and nearly all of the bad publicity.

Like Hughes' previous secretaries of public safety and correctional services, Gordon Kamka and Thomas Schmidt, Hall has faced an inexorable arithmetic. When Hughes took office in 1979, there were about 8,000 prisoners in the state system. Today, there are almost 13,000, and the state's prison system, with a population 40 percent above stated capacity, is one of the most overcrowded in the nation.

"The department has no control over the number of people who come in here," said Emory A. Plitt, an assistant attorney general who has served in public safety for many years. "Overcrowding is something that has no definitive solution. Simply because of the way the department is, you have management by crisis and that affects your ability to do the long-range stuff."

But even judged within that context, Hall, a 44-year-old District of Columbia native who, before going to Maryland, ran New York's juvenile prison system and the corrections department in Massachusetts, is increasingly the subject of criticism.

"The most important thing this state needs is leadership in corrections and that is what we are lacking," said Del. Eileen M. Rehrmann, a Harford County Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Hall's department.

"He's a very nice guy, but he's not a manager," concluded subcommittee Chairman Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's). "He speaks in platitudes, but as far as implementation, that's where it ends. He'd be a great consultant."

A third subcommittee member, Del. Paul Muldowney of Hagerstown, has been virulent on the subject of Hall ever since the secretary pressed disciplinary actions against eight Hagerstown prison guards accused of beating inmates, a decision hailed as courageous in many quarters. Said Muldowney: "Frank Hall is so lightweight that when he sits down on his chair, the springs don't even compress."

Assessments like those, once only an undercurrent in the halls of Annapolis and the department's Towson headquarters, are being voiced more loudly now in the aftermath of the October slaying of penitentiary guard Herman Toulson Jr. The Toulson killing sparked a protest by penitentiary guards and the highly critical report by Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.

Why, the critics ask, did it take the attorney general to uncover longstanding security deficiencies at the penitentiary's unit for troublesome prisoners where Toulson was killed? Why has the Division of Correction not spent $1 million appropriated for improvements at the prison? Hall's defense, that problems that have existed for years cannot be corrected overnight, does not satisfy critics in the legislature.

Maloney, for example, charged that building projects "are just not moving" under the Hall administration. He said the department has only a "vague" master plan for coping with two prisons more than 100 years old and with projections that another 1,500-bed prison will be needed by the year 1990. On the program side, Maloney faulted Hall for slow implementation of prisoner educational and work programs recommended last year by a rehabilitation task force.

Within the Towson headquarters, Hall's perplexing work habits have become a standing joke. Those who work with him said he is perennially late for meetings, even those that he himself has called, and has the unnerving habit of abruptly leaving staff conferences, often when others are in midsentence. Recently, Hall has even skipped interdepartmental meetings called to implement security improvements at the penitentiary ordered by Hughes in the wake of Toulson's slaying.

"He tends to wander, in the sense he is always trying to do two things at one time," observed one source who is familiar with Hall's operational style. "He has a rap in the department of being out of touch with the people who do the work, and he has a tendency to put things off."

Hall "is bright, he's articulate, and he's a good idea man, but administration is not his long suit," the same source said.

As a result, Hall's relations with some subordinates are strained. Hall is said to be barely on speaking terms with his deputy secretary. Several longtime administrative employes have left the department since Hall arrived, some under their own power and some forced out.

After 1 1/2 years in office, Hall is still said to have little understanding of how to operate in the bureaucratic and political alleys of Maryland.

Though he brought to Maryland a reputation as an adept politician, he has on occasion antagonized legislators. For example, Maloney's subcommittee cut out the job of one of Hall's executive assistants when legislators suspected she was being paid while staying at home with her newborn child. Hall didn't get the message, and simply plugged her into another slot where she continued to serve as his assistant.

"What it all comes down to," said Maloney, "is we have a tremendous crisis in this state. Everyone knows what the problems are -- bricks and mortar and programs for the inmates -- but we don't have the management to do it."

Assistant Attorney General Plitt pointed out that Hall has attacked some problems -- such as inmate idleness, parole inflexibility, and the lack of rehabilitation programs for women and juvenile inmates. Hall has sought, Plitt said, to develop a "risk assessment" system that would give the parole and probation division a better means of determining which prisoners are the best candidates for early release

Hall himself takes the long view of someone who has survived, and prospered, in a thankless profession.

"If you spent all your days and nights worrying about what people think of you," said Hall, "you'd never be in corrections. You've got to say 'no' an awful lot in this business, and do a lot of unpopular things."

The criticism, added Hall, boils down to a "question of style." In contrast to his predecessors, who took an active role in the operations of the prison system, Hall sees his function as manning a corporate headquarters in which he should set the tone and philosophy and leave direct management to his subordinates.

"If I'm going to run the Division of Correction then I should move my office over there and I should become commissioner," he said. "You can't do both the secretary's job and the commissioner's job. I don't think the secretary should figure out where the next 100 inmates are going to go. When I first came here that was going on."

That style is similar to the approach taken by Hughes, to whom Hall has been compared.

Hughes expressed full confidence in Hall after the penitentiary guard's killing. Hughes' chief of staff, Ejner J. Johnson, while acknowledging that Hall could be more adroit in his dealings with the legislature, defended his administrative skills.

"It would be nicer if he had good rapport with the General Assembly," said Johnson, "but from a professional standpoint we don't have any problems with him. He's done the job."

The Hughes administration, after launching a building program that includes a new facility in Hagerstown and another under construction in Somerset County, believes that most of its major prison problems are behind it. Johnson and the legislature give high marks to Arnold J. Hopkins, the new corrections commissioner hired last July by Hall.

But on the subject of Hall, the differences remain, and will probably grow deeper.

"It's not a rapport issue," insisted Maloney. "It's just a question of getting results."