When Mayor Marion Barry submitted a resolution laying out his preliminary plans for a new prison to the D.C. Council, he set into motion a chain of events that was equal parts tragedy and comedy.

The comedy first:

Barry, reacting to stiff criticism that he had deep-sixed his proposed 700- to 800-bed drug treatment prison until after the Sept. 9 primary, decided early this week to defuse the situation by handing a vague prison plan to the council.

"Let's take politics out of this," he said later, smiling disingenuously.

Between 4 and 5 p.m. on Monday, Barry informed council Chairman David A. Clarke of his intention to deliver the resolution to the council. The timing was precarious because the council at midnight was scheduled to start its summer recess. Clarke, according to his aides, arranged to keep clerical staff at the office late to receive the Barry missive.

A key element to Barry's proposal was a letter suggesting that the council call a hearing during the summer to explore the prison construction issue. The mayor, of course, also asked the council to approve the resolution -- which would lend added support to the mayor's plan for the $50 million prison adjacent to the existing D.C. Jail in Southeast Washington.

Clarke's aides said yesterday that at 5 p.m. Barry aides promised the resolution would be delivered by 6 p.m. At 6:30 p.m., the chairman was still waiting. Meanwhile, Clarke and a number of council members were expected to show up at a bash given by the influential Retail Liquor Dealers Association of D.C. in Northwest.

Dwight Cropp, a key Barry aide, picks up the narrative.

"I went down. I presented Clarke with the letter and the resolution. He signed the resolution. He was going to clock it in in the Council Secretary's office . . . . The electric clock was locked up so we could not clock it in. He signed the resolution and left it there."

Naturally, Clarke and his aides were furious that "the mayor is late again." Indeed, Barry may be many things, but punctual is not one of them.

At the liquor fete later that evening, Clarke and other council members vigorously debated whether the inability to clock in the resolution before midnight -- that is, stick it into the electric timer that records official actions -- meant that the resolution had not been legally submitted.

Gregory Mize, general counsel to the council, plunged courageously into this question the next day, offering an opinion that in fact for this reason the resolution had not been formally proposed.

By this time, Clarke and the rest of the council were engaged in serious political slam-dunking, using each other for a ball. Council members criticized their colleagues for the very thing Barry has been accused of -- failing to move seriously to build a prison.

As the recess was beginning, and Clarke was continuing to explore whether the resolution could be introduced and hearings held, Barry somehow appeared to have scored a public relations coup. This was a miracle in view of the fact that, just a week before, a consultant hired by his administration had predicted disorder in D.C. prisons and inmates had taken their cue to start a major distubance, burning 14 buildings at Lorton.

Barry, despite the barrage of criticism that followed the Lorton fiasco, had succeeded in making the council look foolish. While they bickered, Barry was talking about putting politics behind him.

"I'm interested in trying to manage the city . . . . So now we've submitted a plan that says we're going to submit a detailed plan . . . four days before the election," Barry said. "Now any politician worth his salt will say that that is the most crazy political decision in the world to make on a very unpopular issue about a jail."

The mayor, above politics. The council, mired in foolishness. Enough comedy, now for the tragedy.

At stake is what Barry, the council, the Congress and all the consultants agree is a treacherously dangerous situation for the city. The problems of overcrowding and rising convictions have conspired to suggest the city will be very short of prison beds in the very near future.

The mayor repeatedly said this week and last that "we are in control" but, in fact, the District is only in control by grace of the federal government and the states of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware -- which together are holding more than 2,700 D.C. inmates in their prison systems.

In the face of an inmate contingent that far outstrips the city's capacity, the only long-term plan in the works calls for a 700- to 800-bed prison by September 1989. Using the mayor's own figures, it can be shown that if the increasing rate of incarceration continues at the pace of the first half of the 1980s, the city's inmate contingent will rise another 2,173 inmates by the time the new prison opens.

Even adding in the city's quick-fix 400-bed modular prison scheduled to open in phases by February next year, the arithmetic indicates the city will have 1,200 new beds by 1989 with 2,173 new inmates to sleep in them.

That sounds like trouble, with overtones of future tragedy.