The District government, which came within a dozen inmates of exceeding the court-ordered prison population ceiling at the D.C. Jail yesterday, has asked the federal government for immediate help in heading off a crisis at the jail, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations.

But the Justice Department, which three weeks ago ended a 4 1/2-month agreement to take all newly sentenced D.C. inmates into federal prisons, is expected to insist that the city government agree to set up a temporary facility -- perhaps in a fenced, abandoned school -- before providing any assistance, the source said.

City and federal officials are to meet this morning in an attempt to negotiate a short-term solution to the latest overcrowding crisis at the D.C. Jail, which housed 1,683 inmates yesterday, 11 fewer than the limit of 1,694.

Under U.S. District Judge William Bryant's Aug. 22 order, the jail could be closed to all new inmates if the population ceiling is violated for more than 48 hours.

According to the Corrections Department's daily census yesterday, the three Lorton facilities that have court-ordered population ceilings were all at or slightly over the limits and all of the department's other institutions were as much as 25 percent above their official capacities.

In the past, the population crunches at the jail have come over the weekends, when about 50 persons report to serve weekends-only sentences. The only previous violation, on Dec. 7, was at the 4 a.m. Saturday count.

That violation, and subsequent attempts by corrections officials to cover it up, have been the subject of two court hearings and prompted attorneys for jail inmates to ask that Mayor Marion Barry be held in contempt and fined $50,000.

Bryant has not yet ruled on that request.

City Administrator Thomas Downs said yesterday afternoon, "The best I can tell, it doesn't look like we will bump into the cap this weekend."

When asked what emergency measures the city might have for housing overflow jail prisoners other than asking for help from the federal government, Downs replied, "That's it."

However, some federal officials expressed chagrin with the city government yesterday, saying that it seemed to have "manufactured" the latest jail crisis.

An attorney for jail inmates, who brought the 15-year-old suit that resulted in the population limit, said that the city's failure to parole many prisoners at the time they are eligible has contributed greatly to the present overcrowding.

According to a recent study of 36 inmates, only two were notified of parole decisions at least 10 days before their eligibility, as required by Bryant's order.

Since the Justice Department's decision Jan. 15 to stop accepting newly sentenced D.C. prisoners, there have been negotiations between federal and city officials on the selection of a site on which to build a new prison within the District.

In announcing the cutoff, Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen said the decision was made because of the lack of progress toward building a new prison in the city.