Correctional officers at the D.C. Jail filed suit against the city yesterday, asking that the jail's population be reduced by almost half because the guards "fear for their lives" at the crowded facility.

The suit asks that at least 1,300 of the more than 2,600 inmates housed at the jail be transferred to other facilities, contending that "all of the necessary elements are present for . . . another riot."

It has become "physically impossible . . . for the correctional officers to conduct adequate surveillance of the inmate population," the suit said.

According to the suit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, a "near-riot almost occurred" on March 5 in one overcrowded cellblock when inmates refused to return to their cells, then "smashed and broke all the television sets and burned their sheets and mattresses."

Corrections Director James Palmer declined to comment on the lawsuit or the alleged March 5 incident.

The suit maintains that inmates and guards endure constant temperatures of over 80 degrees because of inadequate ventilation, that the jail's emergency communications system regularly malfunctions and that the number of guards has not kept pace with the growing prisoner population. "The potential for a correctional officer being physically assaulted or taken hostage in these situations is so great that the correctional officers fear for their lives," the suit says.

The last major disturbance at the jail occurred in July 1983 when inmates burned mattresses and went out of control in a protest of overcrowding there.

"We are demanding a cap be put on the city jail because of the crisis of overcrowding, which is mounting every day," said Bernard Demczuk, political director for the local American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the guards.

"What we have here is a jail that is not functioning and what we fear is that somebody is going to get hurt or die," Demczuk said.

The union, AFGE local 1550, is facing a strong challenge from the Teamsters union for the right to represent the 2,400 employes of the Corrections Department, and competing union officials have said AFGE only lately has become assertive in defending officers' rights. A vote in the Teamsters-AFGE election is scheduled Tuesday.

According to the suit, the jail population now stands at 2,644 inmates or nearly double the capacity of 1,356 for which it was designed.

The court action comes after months of agitation by correctional officers, who complain that they are forced to shoulder the increasing demands of overcrowding without adequate training programs or additional staff.

"We're good officers. We can handle it," Demczuk said. "But for God's sake, give us the job programs or give us some ventilation so that we can do the job."

Demczuk said that more and more officers are reporting sick or simply leaving the department, in some cases erasing the progress made by the city's hiring additional guards.

The suit describes cell blocks where only three officers are posted to guard 180 prisoners. The "close and crowded living quarters" there "have elevated the inmates' level of tension and anxiety to dangerously high levels," the suit states.

The lawsuit charges that at least two assaults against guards are reported every day and alleges an increasing presence of knives and other weapons in inmates' possession.

The suit asks that inmates transferred from the jail be placed somewhere other than in the city's overcrowded correctional facilities. The city recently transferred more than 100 jail inmates to federal prisons throughout the country, prompting an outcry from prisoners' families and civil libertarians.