THE CARTOON, which ran in a national magazine, seems particularly appropriate. In it, heavily armed police have surrounded the suspect's house. "You're under arrest, Simpkins!" the officer in charge yells through a bullhorn. "Now, stay in there until we find someplace to put you."

Some prisoners at the D.C. Jail might feel as though they've gotten the same orders. They're in the corrections department's work-release program. In it, short-term prisoners who have earned some trust and were convicted only of misdemeanors get the chance to hold a job during the day. That helps reacquaint them with the outside and earn some income for their families at the same time.

They're all supposed to be back at the jail by 5:30 p.m., but there's a slight problem. By then the ranks at the jail, which is under a court order to hold no more than 1,694 prisoners, have usually swelled with the day's criminal activity. There are also the Lorton Reformatory inmates who have been shipped to the jail each day for court appearances or medical care at D.C. General Hospital. So the work-release inmates hurry back to the jail by 5:30 p.m., show their faces, and then wait -- sometimes as long as seven hours -- to get back inside. That's how long it can take to decide how many new and old inmates have to be shipped back down to Lorton to keep the D.C. Jail population at the right size.

Thus far, none of the work-release inmates has complained about this weird inconvenience. Standing in line at the jail apparently isn't viewed with the same sort of impatience shown by diners waiting to get into their favorite restaurant. Some of the prisoners have been known to head off for a brew or two after showing up on time, but no one seems to be abusing the situation. Unfortunately, one work-release prisoner was reported to have said, "I could go out and kill somebody and I've got an alibi." Other prisoners weren't particularly pleased by his choice of words. This brings to mind the separate case of a federal prison inmate who sued the facility for making his attempted escape so tempting and for placing his life in jeopardy in the process. (He lost.)

At any rate, if these D.C. Jail prisoners are so trustworthy, the city might consider early releases for them, or perhaps they could get time off for good behavior as outmates