Prisoners in the work-release program at D.C. Jail rise before daybreak, venture out to day jobs and rush to return to the Southeast lockup by a court-mandated evening hour.

Then, like stranded holiday travelers, they must wait at the gate -- sometimes for as long as seven hours -- until there is room for them inside.

"It's like a big train station," D.C. Corrections Department spokesman Edward D. Sargent said of the situation played out every day at the jail for the last six months. "It is not intentional. It's simply unavoidable."

The hub of an crowded prison system that holds more than 7,900 inmates, the D.C. Jail at 19th and D streets constantly must accommodate prisoners entering the system and transferring to and from the city's Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County.

The scene every night at the jail, where a court order limiting the inmate population to 1,694 keeps excess prisoners out, is a shell game of buses and head counts in which work-release prisoners check in and then are left, literally, on the outside. Not until the late-night hours is the shuffling complete and bed space found for the workers.

"I never got into the jail before 10 o'clock," one 31-year-old prisoner said last week. The man, who asked to not be identified, works as a window washer for an Alexandria company and is serving time for a misdemeanor drug possession conviction. He has been in the D.C. Corrections Department work-release program since June 29.

The work-release program is intended to give short-time inmates convicted of misdemeanors a chance to get back into the community and help support their families. The program also relieves some of the stress that crowding places on the system.

But despite early releases this month of some prisoners under an emergency order signed by Mayor Marion Barry, the Corrections Department is still hard-pressed to maintain the population ceiling at the jail. Compounding the problem, the city faces a deadline today for reducing the population of the Occoquan prison facilities at Lorton by 600 inmates.

And with hundreds of prisoners coming through the jail daily, Sargent said, "There has to be some kind of decision about who comes in first."

Last Thursday night, about 9:30, six men, all of whom had checked in with jail guards several hours earlier, lounged around a parked car across from the jail's main gate. None of the prisoners interviewed wished to be identified.

The previous night, about 30 work-release prisoners were gathered in the area, they said, and on Thursday night others had sought refuge from the heat in the waiting room at nearby D.C. General Hospital or had gone in search of a cool drink.

"We can go anywhere we want to," said the window washer, who is required to return to the jail by 5:30 p.m. "If I'm here on time, I can do God knows what. I can go out and kill somebody and I've got an alibi {because the jail record} says I've been here since 5 o'clock. {Jail officials} have put themselves in a lot of jeopardy."

But Col. Bernard L. Braxton, acting administrator of the jail, said yesterday that once an inmate has been granted work-release by the court, "a certain amount of trust is automatically bestowed upon him."

When prisoners check in at the guard tower they are told not to roam far, and Braxton said he doubted there was any real threat posed to the surrounding community. He noted that guards in the tower watch the prisoners' movements and a guard armed with a shotgun walks the jail perimeter 24 hours a day.

"I have a beautiful relationship with the community," Braxton said. If there are "any violations, they will call me directly."

Between 18 and 37 work-release prisoners return to the jail after work, depending on the day, Braxton said, but the majority of the system's approximately 250 work-release prisoners live in halfway houses.

"The new {emergency early release order} will open up space in the halfway houses," he said, and the number of work-release prisoners currently at the jail will decrease as more halfway house spaces become available.

But until the alternatives are in place, Sargent said, "what we do is process them gradually. There is not intentional or malicious intent to cause people who have been convicted and sent to work-release any major inconvenience."

Yet some of those in the work-release program contend that regardless of the intent, the crowding problem has made them prisoners of time.

"I'm just fed up with the operation of it," the window washer said, "but I can't buck it because I want to work. I'm really grateful for having the chance to do the work-release deal, but {waiting five or six hours outside every night is} really nonsense."

"It's just messed up . . . you can't really perform on your job," said a 30-year-old prisoner who does construction work. He and others noted that at times the prisoners don't get inside until 1 or 2 a.m., yet they have to rise by 4 or 5 a.m. for breakfast.

Such a critical view is not universal, however. At 10 p.m. on Thursday, when the number of work-release prisoners gathered near the jail gate had increased to about 20, some of the new arrivals said they were not upset with the idle time and understood the situation faced by the Corrections Department.

"Some prisoners are going to Lorton. Then some prisoners are coming from court," a 27-year-old barber said. "They have to get those prisoners settled before they bring us in."

A woman who is an office worker agreed: "That's why we wait. Then they bring us in and keep the count down. Don't you think it's better being out here than in there?"

But she acknowledged that lack of sleep and shower time under the system can be hard on many of the men because "they work manual labor."

"It takes a lot out of you to be consistent with the program," the window washer said, "because the program is not consistent."