On table-flat land good for corn and cattle, a massive prison complex is slowly rising. Around it, the fields of Maryland's Eastern Shore are crisscrossed with ditches that drain the boggy soil. Screened porches defend farmhouses against the heat and insects of summer, while around the edges of prosperity sit the tumbledown dwellings of the landless.

This is not a very good place to build a prison.

"I think we're going to have some problems with the high humidity, the high temperatures, perhaps the mosquitoes because of the marsh," said the architect, Philip L. Vander Myde.

House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) agrees. "We know the location is going to cause some problems," he said. "It's not in a population center. We're going to have some problems getting corrections officers."

That's not all. Without a complete restructuring of the underlying soil, the sprawling Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County would slowly sink into the ground. The lack of air conditioning will affect both the staff and the 1,500 inmates who will live there. And the prison is more than 100 miles from the communities to which most of the convicts eventually will return.

All these features of Maryland's new $95 million medium-security prison plan fly in the face of contemporary corrections thinking.

A philosophy has evolved over 200 years of efforts to define what a prison should accomplish, what kind of setting it requires and what design works best. In the rush to incarcerate convicts that has generated the biggest prison building boom in U.S. history, political pressures have undercut that philosophy and confused the design process.

In the Washington region and around the country, theories of prison architecture and inmate management have consistently edged toward the ideal of decent treatment and "normalized" environments for convicted criminals.

"The inmates are no longer treated like an animal in a cage," said Tony R. Lang, a vice president of one of the nation's largest prison architecture firms, Henningson, Durham & Richardson.

Warden Kenneth V. Shulsen, striding down the halls of Utah's model young adult offender prison, exclaimed, "This place is supposed to be fun!"

Yet even as corrections professionals try earnestly to transform America's hellholes of retribution, the countervailing force of public opinion blocks their way. Nice theories get gored on the horns of politics.

Elected officials perceive that voters deplore the "coddling" of criminals, and so amenities like air conditioning are scrubbed in the design stage. For public consumption, politicians emphasize the security features of new institutions and do not use the word "campus" to describe their layout, though that is the term architects use.

New prisons, such as Maryland's Somerset institution and Virginia's five most recently constructed ones, almost always end up in economically depressed areas where the promise of jobs overshadows the usual objections to having a prison in the neighborhood. The ideal of building a prison near the urban centers of crime is rarely realized. "Nobody has called me to ask me to put a prison in their community," said Frank A. Hall, secretary of Maryland's department of public safety and correctional services.

The Eastern Correctional Institution landed in Somerset County 10 years after Baltimore officials quashed a proposal to put it in the city and after the state spent $2.5 million on the site.

Theories fall prey to other forces, too. In Virginia, for example, architects originally planned to employ the most advanced perimeter design for the state's newest medium-security institutions in Buckingham, Nottoway and Augusta counties.

The scheme called for two cyclone fences, one just outside the other, with a kind of "no-man's land" laced with razor wire in between. In an age when thick masonry prison walls have become costly and hence obsolete, the Virginia design dropped another staple of prisons -- towers.

According to some theorists, towers are too labor-intensive and can be replaced with double fences encircled by a chase road. Corrections officers patrol the chase road in a vehicle.

But Virginia's corrections officials got cold feet when they saw the design, said S. Cary Gill, the department's assistant director for capital outlay. So towers were added when the construction phase began.

There was a problem, however. The shape of the state-of-the-art perimeter did not take into account any need for direct sight lines from a tower. The tower guard's view of the fence near the front entrance was obscured and, last year, inmates escaped from the Nottoway and Buckingham institutions by cutting holes in the spot. Adjustments are planned.

Virginia officials will also be adding new seismic intrusion devices to the fences. These vibration-sensitive cables are just one of a slew of corrections gadgets on the market in an era when crowding is forcing prison managers to upgrade security.

In Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia's Lorton system, crowding means that some high-security inmates are housed in facilities designed for lower-security populations. "Frankly we have in some of the new medium-security prisons more maximum-security inmates than medium-security," said Allyn R. Sielaff, Virginia's corrections chief. The result is pressure to build new prison space and a need to "harden" the existing plants.

The hardening process includes more than just perimeters. Corrections trade publications abound with advertisements for things like "Supermax" lighting ("30 years to life") by the Morlite Equipment Co. and padded cells by Nova Plastics Inc. ("We've spent more time in them than anyone else!").

Disposable Waste Systems Inc. touts its "Muffin Monster," a plumbing accessory that the company claims will "grind up into small pieces all the things inmates put down toilets."

The literature is filled with invitations to corrections officials to use quick-build products to help them stay ahead of the inmate population explosion. The District, for example, is using a prefabricated system to speed up completion of its $5.2 million minimum-security Lorton Pre-Release Center.

With its electronics and chase roads, the modern prison is a far cry from its precursor, those Gothic behemoths whose shape defines society's idea of what a prison really is -- "a machine," in the words of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, "for grinding rogues honest."

When it opened in 1800, the Virginia State Penitentiary did not have plumbing, much less a Muffin Monster.

The early development of large-scale incarceration was a distinctly American innovation. Before the Revolutionary War, colonial justice leaned heavily on punishments widely used in the European world: incarceration for pretrial detainees, workhouses for petty criminals and corporal punishment for serious offenders such as burglars, robbers and murderers.

After the war, Americans rejected the British legacy and sought alternative forms of punishment.

In the early 19th century, two rival schools of prison design emerged in this country, both of them based on the Quaker idea that regimens of silence and penitence were a cure for the criminal mind. These were called the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems.

The Pennsylvania system, whose prototype is Philadelphia's defunct Eastern State Penitentiary (which city officials now hope to convert to condomimiums), was a radial form with cell wings issuing from a central hub. The prisoners never left their tiny cells, did no work, and confined themselves to silent reflection.

The Auburn system, developed in New York, featured a different physical layout. Two rows of cells, back to back, were positioned well away from the exterior walls of a cavernous building. These rows were stacked in tiers four and five stories high. The inmates in these cage complexes spent their nights in cells and congregated by day to perform work. They were not permitted to speak.

The radial design of the Pennsylvania system was copied widely in Europe and the Orient. But it was the Auburn system that took root in the United States, largely because it offered the advantage of a work-productive inmate population.

The interior cell type of prison is well represented in this region today. In Maryland, the penitentiary and House of Correction at Jessup feature Auburn-style cellblocks. The Virginia penitentiary adopted the design 100 years after its original construction. A modified version of the type lurks, too, behind the massive walls of the District's maximum-security facility at Lorton.

The latter part of the 19th century brought refinements and a shift in philosophy. The discipline of silence broke down, the religious fervor of the penitentiary movement waned, and the so-called reformatory movement emphasized education and training.

The next, and last, prison design to emphasize bigness was introduced in the 1930s and popularized in the 1950s. The so-called telephone pole layout was distinguished by a long central corridor and buildings that cut across it at 90-degree angles.

This modification coincided with a new strain in corrections theory. Prison managers began to use classification systems to separate their inmate populations into high-, medium- and low-security groups.

The federal Bureau of Prisons asserted "the fundamental fact that about 75 percent of even adult felons do not require maximum-security housing." The shift to lower-security prisons, coupled with the high costs of construction, brought an end to building the walled fortress prisons of the past.

The demise of the wall makes a fitting symbol for modern prison design.

The period since the early 1970s has been marked by an idealism reminiscent of the 19th century penitentiary movement. Religious overtones have been replaced, however, with a secular push for humane incarceration.

The "campus" design, used initially for women's and juvenile institutions, is now the dominant model for male prisons. Most of Maryland and Virginia's prisons built since 1977 are campus or modified campus designs. This type is notable for its use of open space, detached housing structures and walkways that give inmates a chance to be outside every day. The design is intended to reduce the tensions of prison life. Toward that end, most authorities agree the campus prisons should hold no more than 400 to 600 inmates.

This liberal trend in corrections thinking, in the face of conservative political winds, probably owes as much to concern for prison guards as for inmates. The National Institute of Corrections, in its text on prison design, sets this guideline: "The institutional environment should be as normal as possible for the welfare of both inmates and staff . . . . A reasonable balance should be struck between the security features of a secure correctional facility and an architectural environment that projects a spirit of openness and reconciliation."

But, as happened in the days of the Quakers, an ideal conflicts with uncooperative reality.

"We've come up with a whole new architecture in the last 15 years, but it's still too early to judge the effectiveness," said Anthony P. Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association. "We're having to deal with problems of classification and overcrowding that are muddying the waters . . . . A new level of professionalism comes along, then we are overcrowded and it ruins it."

The pressure to house convicts, funneled in unprecendented numbers through the courts, undermines the ideal of the small institution. Maryland, whose large Somerset prison is designed for 1,500 residents, grapples with that problem by dividing the complex into two separate prisons sited back to back in a "siamese campus" configuration.

But, said Utah Warden Shulsen, "I don't care if you're in Maryland or Guam, you can't manage crowds. I don't know what the right number is exactly. Maybe it's 288. I just don't think you can do it with 1,500."

Shulsen is in charge of Utah's main state prison complex in Draper, which includes the new 288-inmate Young Adult Offender Program campus prison. Designed by Henningson, Durham & Richardson (HDR), the facility reflects state-of-the art design and philosophy.

It is "podular," as the corrections architects like to say, and operates on the "direct supervision" management model.

Podular means the housing units of 64 or 72 open onto a central common area, enabling corrections officers to have a line of sight on all the cells at once. Direct supervision refers to the idea that guards mingle with inmates, rather than observe them from behind barriers of glass or steel.

Aaron Brown, project director for the National Institute of Corrections, compares direct supervision to indirect supervision: "One's a people management approach, and one's a hardware management approach . . . . Regardless of what people may say, inmates are people. And you have to manage people with people."

At the Utah young offender prison, guards in street clothes mingle with the inmates, and a relaxed atmosphere prevails. Capt. Tom Bona, a unit supervisor, said he encourages his officers not to place artificial boundaries between themselves and their charges. "We're trying something different," he said. "Here we're trying to get away from the guard-convict, we-they type of thing."

But the Utah program, which is for men between 18 and 24 years old who are classified medium- and minimum-security, simply would not work in a maximum-security setting, according to Toni V. Bair.

Formerly in charge of the Utah program, Bair is now warden of Virginia's maximum-security Mecklenburg prison, which has a similar pod shape. "In Utah, you had a free-flowing situation," he said. "The inmates were face-to-face with all my staff. Here nobody walks anywhere unescorted. They are always handcuffed when they do walk from point A to point B."

R.M. Muncy, the warden of the new HDR-designed Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia, insists on keeping some of his staff behind a control room barrier. "Fine, in medium- and minimum-security institutions, direct supervision would work," he said. "But when you are dealing with 'C' custody inmates maximum-security , you want the control room to ensure security integrity."

In Maryland, the design of the Somerset prison is not pod-shaped but a linear X-shaped housing type that features corridors with cells opening onto them. The design is cheaper and is similar to housing at the recently opened Roxbury Correctional Institution at Hagerstown, said architect Vander Myde, whose Fairfax-based firm, Dewberry & Davis, is designing the prison in a joint venture with Phillips Swager Associates of Peoria.

"The likes and dislikes of the Maryland system" are incorporated into a layout that offers flexibility, Vander Myde said. "Maryland's got it all here. They can staff it any way they want. They can staff all the towers or run patrols on the chase road or put dogs in no-man's land."

The campus-style prisons, with their pods and X shapes, slowly are moving corrections in the direction of more humane incarceration. Yet the ideal continues to stumble on the realities of politics, costs and rising inmate populations.

In the past five years, the District, Virginia and Maryland have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on repositories for their convicted felons. Nevertheless, the jurisdictions are outpaced by the human tide that is sweeping through the courts and into the hands of wardens and guards. The result is that many inmates remain in obsolete fortresses like the penitentiaries of Maryland and Virginia.

"We've been in Baltimore since 1811," said Frank A. Hall, "and I think we're going to be there for a long time to come."

Or at least until the nation that invented mass incarceration finds a substitute.