WHILE MAYOR BARRY is busy blaming the Lorton disturbances on the press -- for reporting what his own government's consultant concluded about the prison system -- D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke has seized the moment for some unhelpful politicking. Mr. Clarke, who relishes the opportunity to attack Mr. Barry, charged this week that the mayor is stalling the building of a new prison. That may be, but since when has Chairman Clarke been blazing any trails to a construction site in the city? Mr. Clarke has never lifted a finger for construction of a new facility in the city. His head-in-the-sand position has been to talk about "alternatives" to prisons and and to suggest providing more space, if any is really needed, where no council member would have to live with it: at Lorton.

Where was Mr. Clarke when Mayor Barry endorsed the idea of a new facility in the District -- for which the federal government was making land and money available? The council's main contribution before the Lorton riots was to complain that it wasn't involved enough. Mr. Clarke or council member Wilhelmina Rolark, who heads the judiciary committee, could have hopped in with recommendations or more hearings. Instead, Mr. Clarke, Mrs. Rolark and the mayor are all talking about hearings on Sept. 10 -- a day after the primary elections. Mr. Barry as well as others running for office say they're not going to talk about the issue until then.

No wonder Sen. Arlen Specter, who has led the federal effort to assist the city in building a prison, is worried that the reactions of city officials are undermining the District's position in Congress. "I am still with home rule, but I am finding it tougher and tougher to keep my colleagues on board," he says. Is it unfair of Congress? Yes -- the principle of local self-government does not mandate a perfect operation. But the cold fact of the case is that while the federal government is offering help, the city government can't get its act together with anything resembling dispatch.

As for Mr. Barry, he has got to speed up the process he has just announced, which wouldn't produce a new prison for at least three more years. Given the emergency, it should not take that long. Or would the city administration prefer to wait and see how long it takes before members of Congress -- or inmates at Lorton or maybe another consultant with a study -- find ways to make things happen faster?