The city government filed suit in U.S. District Court here yesterday to force the federal government to take newly sentenced D.C. inmates into federal prisons as a way to ensure that the city will not violate a court-ordered inmate population ceiling at the D.C. Jail.

The action came one day after Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen notified Mayor Marion Barry of three possible sites for a new prison in the District and indicated that the federal government expected the city to "expand prison capacity on a short-term" basis before the federal government would resume taking city prisoners.

Barry blasted Jensen's letter yesterday, saying the District government had provided federal officials with a list of 257 "U.S.-owned properties" that might have been used for construction of a new prison and that the final list of three sites from Jensen was "not helpful at all."

Jensen deferred comment to U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, who said he would not comment on Barry's letter. "Our only response will be in court," he said.

The city's two-pronged attack on the federal government seemed to bring to an abrupt halt a month of intense negotiations between the two governments on the selection of a new site for a D.C. prison.

"I am extremely disappointed and dismayed by the betrayal of trust which I thought had been established during our meeting of Jan. 16," Barry said in his letter, pointing out that there had been "several 'leaks' " about the negotiations and complaining that he first learned of Jensen's letter from the news media.

Barry's letter also seemed to signal a hardening of the city's stance that the District's continuing prison overcrowding problems are solely the responsibility of the attorney general.

But a federal official called Barry's bitter letter "an act of desperation," and J. Patrick Hickey, an attorney for inmates of the D.C. Jail, whose 15-year-old suit resulted in the court-ordered inmate ceiling, said the city's suit was "an attempt to divert responsibility from where it really belongs . . . on the city."

"There isn't anything that has changed, except that the District has let years and years go by without doing anything," Hickey said.

U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant ordered Aug. 22 that the inmate population ceiling at the D.C. Jail could not exceed 1,694 and that violation of the cap for more than 48 hours could result in an order to cut off all inmate admissions there.

To help the city meet the court-imposed ceiling, the federal government agreed to take all newly sentenced D.C. prisoners into federal facilities. In an Aug. 21 letter to Barry, Jensen pointed out that the city had to come up with other short-term solutions to prison overcrowding, such as temporary prison facilities, while a permanent prison was being built.

On Jan. 13, Jensen announced that the federal government was ending its 4 1/2-month-old agreement, saying that the city had not made any progress in solving its prison crisis.

In a meeting with Barry three days later, Jensen agreed to help the city select a site for a permanent prison, but he again said the city would have to move toward setting up temporary housing before the federal government would consider taking city prisoners.

D.C. City Administrator Thomas Downs said at a news conference yesterday that the city felt that if "we could reach some understanding and accommodation about sites and a time frame for construction that the Justice Department would be willing . . . to resume the process of taking prisoners."

Downs said that the city believed its planned construction of modular housing units at Lorton's Central facility was a proper response to the federal government's request for temporary housing.

However, Jensen said specifically in his Jan. 13 letter that the federal government had no involvement in the construction at Lorton, and federal officials have repeatedly stated that such temporary housing must be built in the District.

Downs said the city was surprised that Jensen did not provide Wednesday for the federal government to resume accepting inmates. "The letter," Downs said, " . . . left a clear impression . . . that the District was on its own [concerning the court-ordered inmate ceiling] and that [the federal government], in effect, wished us good luck.

"We cannot accept that as a final answer," he said.

Jensen's letter also informed the city that the Justice Department had determined that "a minimum of 2,000 beds" need to be added to the city's present corrections capacity.

Barry said in his reply that he was "shocked" by the 2,000-bed figure, saying that he had agreed to add 1,000 beds after Jensen and diGenova said that the smaller number of new beds was needed. A federal official said that no definite number of beds had been agreed to previously, although a 1,400 figure had been mentioned recently.

The city's legal action takes two forms: a request that the federal government be made a defendant along with the city in the 15-year-old D.C. Jail suit and a request for a temporary restraining order to force the federal government to accept city prisoners.

Court officials said late yesterday that a hearing on the matters might be held today.

During the month of negotiations on a prison site, federal and city officials studied dozens of tracts in all quadrants of the city. Barry has said he will build a new prison in the District if it is built on federal land with federal funds, and if the search is limited to federally owned sites. Congress has appropriated $30 million for construction of a new prison.

The three sites listed in Jensen's letter were a 22-acre tract along North Capitol Street NW near Children's Hospital; the site of the old D.C. Jail, 19th Street and Independence Avenue SE and the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington.

City officials claim that the District owns the old D.C. Jail site -- federal officials said land records show the Department of Interior has title to the tract -- and that it is already scheduled to receive the St. Elizabeths parcel, making them ineligible under Barry's conditions. The city also has approved a new $14 million ambulatory care wing and emergency room for D.C. General Hospital, which will take up part of the old jail site.