The clatter and whir of sewing machines and the easy morning banter among dozens of men dressed in death-row white suddenly halts.

One prisoner stands and asks for silence, then speaks a single name and requests prayers for the loved ones of the former co-worker - who was put to death just hours earlier."Then it's back to work," says Max Soffar, one of the condemned murderers who works in the prison shop making uniforms and other cloth goods. "You get used to it, but it's still really troublesome. It's sad seeing people die that you got to know. They're here today, you see them on TV the next day and they're dead."

This year, the ritual was repeated 37 times at the garment factory at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Ellis I Unit, home of the state's death row.

"It hurts," says Henry Lee Lucas, perhaps the state's most famous death row inmate and, at 61, its oldest. Lucas, condemned in 1984 for strangling a female hitchhiker north of Austin, confessed to hundreds of slayings, then recanted.

Texas' 37 executions - exactly half the national total - is the highest number in a single state in a single year since 1930, when the federal government began an annual count.

It equaled the number of Texas inmates put to death from 1982 through 1990. And for the first time since Texas reopened death row in the mid-1970s, the number of convicted killers executed in a single year exceeded the number of prisoners who arrived with new death sentences - 29 this year.

The spurt in executions was not unexpected.

For years, Texas had reigned as the nation's most active death penalty state, executing inmates at a steady pace: 12 in 1992, 17 in 1993, 14 in 1994, 19 in 1995.

That changed in late 1995 when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to consider an inmate's challenge to a state law designed to hasten appeals. The result was a virtual halt in executions last year.

The appeals court eventually upheld the law. Cases blocked by the challenge moved forward, along with those that would normally have come due this year.

Killer Richard Brimage became a historical footnote of sorts when he was executed Feb. 10 - the first to die in a record year.

Condemned for the 1987 rape and murder of a Kingsville college student, Brimage ordered all appeals in his case halted and volunteered for lethal injection.

Another inmate followed him to the gurney in March, then six in April and eight in May. When Earl Behringer became the fifth of eight inmates put to death in June, Texas had topped the previous record of 20 executions carried out in 1935, when the electric chair was still in use and capital punishment extended to rapists as well as killers.

The last 1997 execution came Dec. 9, that of Michael Lockhart, condemned for killing officer Paul Hulsey Jr. in Beaumont in 1988.

"Our criminal justice system is correct and it's a good law," Paul Hulsey said after watching his son's killer die. "But somehow we need to whittle this period down to about three years of appeals, so not only we, but the victims themselves and the victim's families can get this suffering and agonized waiting over and go about their lives."

Executions probably will continue at a brisk pace in 1998, and it's likely the list will include a woman.