A frustrated sheriff with a crowded jail handcuffed 12 convicts to a state prison fence yesterday but had them taken to a nearby penal farm after an angry federal judge threatened to release the men.

Shelby County Sheriff Gene Barksdale precipitated the latest crisis in Tennessee's prison system by taking 12 inmates to the West Tennessee Reception Center and handcuffing them to a fence when the warden refused to admit them. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Higgins, who last month barred Tennessee's overcrowded prisons from accepting new inmates, blasted Barksdale for "dumping" the prisoners and told him to remove them by 6 p.m. CST or they would be released.

Barksdale, saying he was in the middle of conflicting orders from two federal judges, had the 12 prisoners removed 30 minutes before the deadline but vowed they would not be returned to his jail.

Higgins, at an emergency hearing requested by Tennessee Corrections Commissioner Steve Norris, told Attorney General Mike Cody "to make it clear to the sheriff that the orders of this court won't be obstructed by dumping prisoners off on the state."

He also ordered the immediate release of any prisoners delivered to state prisons in violation of his order barring new inmates until the state corrects overcrowding and other conditions he deemed unconstitutional.

Barksdale said he was under 1976 orders from U.S. District Court Judge Robert McRae not to overcrowd his jail.