Three of four prisoners who escaped Thursday night from the D.C. Jail eluded a police search yesterday as corrections officials and jail union officers traded charges as to whether recent budget cuts were responsible for the jailbreak.

The dramatic, movieland escape occurred shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday, when four inmates cut through the steel bars of a fifth floor cell, shinnied down a makeshift, 80-foot rope of bedsheets and then scaled an eight-foot masonry wall using two aluminum ladders. One of the escapees was quickly recaptured about one-half mile from the jail, which is located across from RFK Stadium at 19th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE.

D.C. Corrections Chief Delbert C. Jackson said yesterday that the two guards stationed in the cellblock at the time of the escape constituted a "normal staffing complement," and that there were no plans to add more personnel in the wake of the escape.

But Lee Graves, a union shop steward for the corrections officers, said, "When I talked to Mayor Barry last week I told him directly something like this could happen because it's understaffed. He said, 'You're overreacting, dramatizing.'"

The correctional officers' union representative, Bernard Demczuk, said that while 405 guards are required for the proper operation of the jail, only about 340 are currently on staff.

In addition, as part of Mayor Marion Barry's plans to avoid a potential $172 million budget deficit, the corrections department has announced plans to lay off a total of 225 corrections department employes at Lorton prison and the jail.

Demczuk said that 41 persons working at the jail have recently received layoff notices. He said several of them are now taking sick leave before their jobs are terminated, rather than reporting for work -- an action that has left the jail understaffed.

In Thursday night's escape, inmates used 12 to 15 hacksaw blades -- apparently taken from the prison shop -- to saw their way through one of three hardened steel horizontal bars and one vertical bar running across the window of a cell in the jail's northwest wing.

At the time of the escape there were 71 inmates in that wing.

After forcing open a sealed windowpane, the four who escaped used a makeshift rope of eight or nine bedsheets to lower themselves to the ground, and then ran to the wall and climbed over with the ladders.

Investigators said the presence of the aluminum ladders, possibly taken from a nearby construction site, suggested that the men may have had help from persons outside the jail.

The inmate captured shortly after the escape was identified by police as James Rufus Lee, 31, who is awaiting trial on kidnaping, assault and burglary charges.

The three fugitives still being sought were identified as Samuel Byrd, 26, Larry Wallace, 24 and Ronald Givens, 34.

Authorities said Byrd was awaiting trial on charges of murder, robbery and assault on a police officer. Wallace has been charged with armed robbery, and Givens, who has been convicted of assault with intent to rape, was awaiting trial on various drug charges.

In contrast to the city's reformatory at Lorton, which is designed to hold people who have been convicted and sentenced, the D.C. Jail's primary function is to hold criminal suspects awaiting trial or sentencing.

Thursday's escape was similar to a jailbreak four years ago in which four inmates, also using bedsheets, fled from the jail.

Residents of the 1800 block of Potomac Avenue, which is separated from the jail only by a small yard, a 5-foot brick wall and a sidewalk, greeted the news of the jailbreak with fear and annoyance.

"It is utterly ridiculous that Mayor Barry would want to reduce the guards when people are living this close," said Katherine Jones, a retired social worker who lives with her granddaughter three houses from the jail. "He should get rid of some of those people down at the District Building."

"If the mayor needs guards at his house, so do we. If he has to cut guards [from the jail staff] he doesn't need them either."