If ever the District government needed a high-powered public relations campaign to save it from further embarrassment, the time is now, and the subject is the city's prison crisis.

To avoid violating court-ordered population ceilings at the D.C. Jail and Lorton Reformatory, the District has been looking to relocate prisoners. In the process, however, city officials apparently developed a bit of tunnel vision as they searched for new homes for the city's prisoners and thought very little about the problems created in the process.

First of all, let's examine that little weekend field trip that 55 District prisoners took to Pennsylvania. As the first news reports of the trip came in, it was as though someone were trying to introduce comic relief to the subject of prison overcrowding:

The prisoners were on a bus headed for a private prison facility 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. But wait. Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh had not been informed of the prisoner transfer and was seeking a court order to keep the prisoners out of his state.

The prisoners were headed back to the District? Not quite. They were banned from the private jail, the 268 Center, six hours before they arrived but would be allowed to stay for a couple of days.

District officials, who had contributed to the chain of events by failing to discuss the matter with Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies, saw no reason to change their mum-is-the-word approach. District Department of Corrections Director James Palmer had no comment on the situation on Friday. And on Monday, corrections officials would not release the population figures for its prison facilities.

The city's behavior, at best, is perplexing. Even though the 268 Center is a private facility, surely District corrections officials were aware of the nationwide As the first news reports of the trip came in, it was as though someone were trying to introduce comic relief to the subject of prison overcrowding. debate over using such facilities to relieve prison overcrowding.

If 55 Pennsylvania prisoners were shipped in the middle of the night to a private District facility, Mayor Marion Barry and other government officials not only would want to know about it but would want the opportunity to determine the government's liability in such a situation.

Meanwhile, Pennslyvania officials are not the only ones angered about the District's efforts to relocate prisoners.

Plans to open the old 9th Police Precinct station at 525 Ninth St. NE to house the overflow from the D.C. Jail have caused residents from that area to protest and seek a partial stay of the court order that set the inmate limit at the jail.

Although residents were given a tour of the facility, they remain convinced that Barry is trying to solve a city problem by pushing prisoners into neighborhood facilities without any real consideration of the impact on the neighborhoods.

The District is clearly in a quandary. It must either obey the court-ordered jail ceilings or suffer the consequences of being in contempt of court. But in their aggressive search for alternatives, District officials may have forgotten that they created much of the situation.

Although the city must live with an inmate ceiling, that ceiling was not imposed until last August, when U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant concluded that conditions in the jail had worsened despite repeated court orders for more than a decade to correct the situation.

Then for months, the federal government stepped in to take all newly sentenced District prisoners until the city could begin work on a new District prison, for which Congress has appropriated $30 million. But in January, federal officials announced dissatisfaction with the city's lack of progress on the new prison and stopped taking D.C. prisoners. The city is still in the progress of selecting a prison site.

Now that the District has used up the patience of the courts and federal officials, it would prefer that anyone annoyed by its last-minute solutions suffer in silence.

To the contrary, the city is discovering that the negative public reaction to its alternatives to prison overcrowding are creating stumbling blocks and legal hurdles that are as frustrating as the prison crisis itself.