Prisoners awaiting trial in federal court in Alexandria have been banned from the city 's aging, unair-conditioned jail, forcing U.S. marshals to scramble for jail space as far away as Tidewater.

Alexandria Sheriff Michael E. Norris declined late last month to renew a three-year contract with the marshals' service, which had permitted short-term prisoner housing only six blocks from the federal courthouse on Washington Street.

The marshals maintain holding cells in the courthouse basement, but have no overnight jail facility.

The action has sharply increased overtime and transportation costs, inconvenienced prisoners' families and attorneys and forced the marshals to rely more on already crowded jails elsehwere in Northern Virginia, according to Roger Ray, chief deputy U.S. marshal in Alexandria.

The decision also has cut into Justice Department funds used to pay per diem fees to localities for housing prisoners in federal custody.

The rates in Fairfax and Arlington counties -- the two remaining suburban jurisdictions under contract to accept prisoners -- are $38 and $42 respectively. Alexandria's daily fee was a relatively inexpensive $29.50.

"The federal court lives here," Norris concedes. "I saw them as our constituents."

But the Alexandria jail, parts of which date back to 1825, has been under a federal judge's order since 1977 to halt overcrowding by limiting its prisoner population to 114. That limitation has made it increasingly difficult, Norris says, to squeeze in federal prisoners.

The jail is chronically at or near capacity, according to the sheriff.

Even so, Norris often tried to accommodate his brethren at the marshals' office. "He's been fantastic," saysd ray.

Norris finally decided to shut his doors not only over the crowding issue but because of what he calls a curious and troubling visit six months ago from a Chicago-based consulting firm.

According to the sheriff, the company, David M. Griffith and Associates Ltd., suggested it might be possible to double, and perhaps triple, Alexandria's $29.50 jail fee by recalculating the indirect costs to the city of housing federal prisoners.

Griffith was offering its services "for free," Norris says. But "free" turned out to mean, according to a company document, that the consultants' fee would be reimbursed by the marshals' service -- an arrangement Norris, a Republican and self-described fiscal conservative, says he found offensive.

Nothing came of the suggestion, Norris says, because the consultants agreed, after reviewing the figures, that the sheriff's department's estimate was "in the ball park."

But Norris was angry enough to fire off a letter to the chief U.S. marshal for the eastern district of Virginia, requesting an explanation of why federal funds were available to pay "large consultants' fees."

David Mazo, regional vice president for Griffith, confirms that a company representative, Jane C. Robin, met with the Alexandria sheriff's department. "The marshals' study never materialized, but I can't recall exactly why it didn't," Mazo says. Robin is no longer employed by Griffith.

At one time, Mazo says, it looked as if the Justice Department would be willing to underwrite the costs of such studies. But Griffith later gave them up as "not worthwhile," Mazo says.

Attempts to reach Burdette S. Burton, contracting officer for the U.s. marshals' service in the eastern district of Virginia, were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, chief deputy Ray, who says he was unaware of Griffith's offer to Norris, continues to shuttle prisoners between the federal court in Alexandria and jails as distant as Petersburg, Hanover County and Virginia Beach.

A contract for 10 guaranteed spaces at the badly crowded Fairfax County jail, negotiated with former Sheriff James Swinson, expires in June, 1983. Arlington and Loudoun counties currently accept federal prisoners only on a space-available basis, Ray says.

And the jail run by his law enforcement neighbor, Norris, remains off-limits. It will remain so, Norris says, unless a judge orders him to take infederal prisoners. But with the court-imposed ban on crowding still in effect, Norris adds with a hint or irrny, he doesn't expect that to happen.

Norris says his stand may soften in October when the sheriff's department is scheduled to take over the Alexandria police lockup, several small holding cells at police headquarters. The plan would allow the sheriff's department to shift some of its prisoners to the police lockup and would permit construction of additional dormitory space at the city jail, he says.

Also in the planning stages is a $19 million city jail, expected to open in about four years near Eisenhower Avenue in the cityhs West End.