When Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) stepped in last fall to halt temporarily construction of an 800-bed prison near the D.C. Jail in Southeast Washington, he said he was confident that a more suitable site could be found in the city, away from populated areas.

But the four alternative sites under review are fraught with political and topographical problems that could make them even less promising than the current site, according to a Washington Post review of the sites and a D.C. planning office study.

One site, near Bolling Air Force Base in Southeast, is owned by the Navy, which intends to use it for a naval intelligence command post and White House helicopter squadron. Another site is on the grounds of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's pristine National Arboretum, along New York Avenue NE, and is prone to flooding.

Two others, near the Fort Lincoln New Town development in Northeast, have serious soil problems and would afford limited access. One of those sites, near the interchange of New York and South Dakota avenues NE, was used by the city in 1983 to dump a processed sludge material called Chemfix that would cause health problems unless removed.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said last week that he intends to "stick with" the current site near the jail unless federal officials can turn up a better alternative by Feb. 1. However, he said he doubts that an alternative site can be found among the four under review.

"The city went about looking for a new prison site in a very careful manner, and picking the present site was not done in a cavalier fashion," Barry said. "We exhausted every other possible site that we thought was feasible."

Harkin was on a congressional trip to Korea last week and could not be reached for comment. A congressional staff member familiar with the controversy over the prison site said that if federal agencies "have designs" on some of the sites and the others prove to be unsuitable for development, "then that's a problem."

Congress earmarked $50 million for construction of a new D.C. prison on federal land within the District, to relieve crowding at Lorton Reformatory in suburban Fairfax County and at the D.C. Jail. The District, under pressure from Congress, agreed in 1986 to build a prison on 10 1/2 acres of federal land near the jail.

Harkin, who succeeded Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) as chairman of the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee last year, persuaded Congress to delay prison construction after workers found prehistoric artifacts on the present site and area residents opposed to the prison complained that their neighborhood already was inundated with government institutions.

"The community is really upset, not only because of the 800 beds they want to build, but because it's sort of a first step toward a major prison complex in that whole area there," said Jamie Platt, vice chairman of the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Prison Task Force. "Once they have their foot in the door there . . . there's no way of stopping it."

Platt said he had been unaware of some of the problems with the alternative sites, particularly the Navy's plans for the site near Bolling, which Platt had thought was the most promising.

"Our feeling is these stumbling blocks aren't necessarily fatal," he said. "The Navy's plans don't have to proceed if Congress decides they want to put a prison there. The Navy could use alternatives to what their plans are."

In adopting fiscal 1988 appropriations legislation, Congress instructed the General Accounting Office and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to examine the four alternative sites and report back by Feb. 1.

Barry, in consultation with the Senate and House appropriations committees, must decide by March 15 whether to go ahead with construction at the current site or shift to another area.

Platt's neighborhood group scored a victory by enlisting Harkin's support. Members said they were justified in bypassing the city and appealing directly to Congress because D.C. officials and Specter, a booster of the current prison project, had ignored their complaints.

However, much rides on the findings of the GAO and the Bureau of Prisons, which are reviewing four sites that the D.C. Office of Planning previously considered but concluded were not strong candidates for a prison. According to a source familiar with the federal review, each of the four sites presents development problems.

Julius Hobson, the mayor's chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said the cost of the project most likely would increase significantly if another site is chosen because the city would have to build a power plant to guarantee the prison an independent source of electricity. One virtue of the current site, Hobson said, is that it is near the power plant that serves the jail.

The city has spent about $5 million in design and preparation of the current site.

Barry hinted during a community group meeting late last year that he might favor the National Arboretum site as an alternative to the current site. But last week Barry said that this idea was opposed by influential members of Congress and had to be dropped.

The 15-acre, L-shaped tract wraps around the historic brickyard at the entrance to the 444-acre arboretum -- rolling terrain containing 60,000 types of trees, plants and ground cover that attracts about 1 million visitors annually. The site, which occasionally floods, abuts a small residential neighborhood of mostly retired government workers.

Marc Cathey, director of the arboretum, said there are plans to convert the brickyard and surrounding area to a visitor and research center as part of a long-term expansion program. He said it would be inappropriate to build a prison there.

"I don't even consider it a possibility that it would be done," Cathey said.

Russell and Anna Barbee, a retired couple who reside nearby on 24th Street NE, said that construction of a prison there would be "detrimental" to the community and threaten their security.

"You know those people get out {of prison} every now and then, and you don't want to live in apprehension," Anna Barbee said. "We vehemently object to a prison. Put it down on the extra land by the D.C. Jail. Don't just start scattering prisons all over the city."

The site near Bolling Air Force Base -- 21 acres of land just off South Capitol Street, on the south side of the Frederick Douglass Bridge -- is in a flood plain, according to D.C. and federal officials, but that is not its only problem as a potential prison site.

Navy officials said recently they intend to use portions of the land for construction, including facilities for a squadron of helicopters to serve the White House and a naval intelligence command headquarters. The Navy owns all but five acres of the site.

"There are no plans to have it used for anything other than Navy projects," a Navy spokeswoman said.

A study prepared by the D.C. planning office concluded that of the two sites near Fort Lincoln New Town, one is inadequate for prison construction and the other would be of "marginal and questionable" use.

The site deemed inadequate, the 16-acre Anacostia Park/Fort Lincoln property, is on the north bank of the Anacostia River across from the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. More than five acres is part of the Fort Lincoln Urban Renewal Plan area.

Currently, there is no access to the site. To gain access, the city would have to build a lengthy extension of South Dakota Avenue and either a bridge over or a tunnel under the railroad track. Also, about half the site is in a flood plain and lacks adequate sewer and water service, according to the planning office report.

At the other Fort Lincoln site, near the interchange of New York and South Dakota avenues NE, the land is steeply sloped, there is no direct access to the site, and up to 20 feet of the Chemfix sludge material covers a large expanse of landfill.

Chemfix "is difficult to build on, and no place for its relocation has as yet been found," the planning office report stated. "To use the site will require its removal."

Before that site could be used, the D.C. Council and the National Capital Planning Commission would have to approve changes in their urban renewal plans. Moreover, owners of the New Town development and area residents most likely could block the prison through administrative action or litigation if it could be shown that a prison would adversely affect their property, the study indicated.

Michele V. Hagans, president of Fort Lincoln New Town Corp., said recently that construction of a prison near her development of 700 rental units for the elderly and 1,500 market-price condominiums would be "less than appropriate."

Hagans said it would make more sense to build the prison near the jail instead of introducing "a new element" to another community.

Pro: 15 acres with direct access from New York Ave, NE

Con: Arboretum plans to use historic brickyard for visitor-research center Part of site in flood zone Abuts on small residential neighborhood

2. SOUTH CAPITOL STREET SITE

Pro: 21 open acres adjoining the U.S. Naval Station Isolated from residential areas Potential for prison expansion

Con: Navy has plans for major construction projects on site Most of the site is in flood plain

3. ANACOSTIA PARK-FORT LINCOLN

Pro: 16 undeveloped acres along Anacostia River

Con:No access by roadHalf of site is in flood plainNo water and sewer serviceNear New Town development

4. FORT LINCOLN SITE

Pro:10 undeveloped acres

Con: No road access Site is steeply sloped Site is covered with large quantities of processed sludge material that would have to be removedLocated within an urban renewal areaLocated near New Town development