Last year an elderly woman in Southeast D.C. was alarmed when she looked out her window to see the police on her lawn arresting an escapee from the D.C. jail. Shortly thereafter she learned that the D.C. prison, with the capacity to hold 800 inmates, would be built adjacent to the jail in her neighborhood.

I think it would be unfair, not to mention dangerous, for her and her neighbors to have to live so close to a prison as well as the jail. If we can avoid building the prison in her neighborhood, or anyone's neighborhood, we should. That's what I'm fighting for.

As chairman of the Senate District appropriations subcommittee, I share the District's view that local matters should remain under local control. The role of Congress should be limited generally to those matters that affect the federal interest or the federal purse.

Congress and the District government are jointly responsible for the criminal justice system of the District. The local prosecutor is the U.S. attorney, prisoners are remanded to the custody of the U.S. attorney general and the president appoints local judges, with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. Under an agreement reached with Mayor Barry, the proposed prison is to be built on federal land with federal dollars. We are partners, not adversaries.

The proposed site was not on the list of sites reviewed by the departments of Justice or Interior. Rather, it was chosen by the mayor and initially approved by Congress out of a sense of urgency: Lorton was suffering from overcrowded conditions, and it was necessary to move ahead as quickly as possible. It still is.

However, as we subsequently learned, the Southeast site is not well-suited for prison construction. It is in a stable, integrated neighborhood populated by many older residents on fixed incomes. These residents are particularly vulnerable to the kinds of problems that a prison imposes, and they are already burdened by huge facilities -- RFK Stadium, D.C. General Hospital and the jail -- over which they have no control.

It is important that the impact on the residential neighborhood be taken into account. Last year, the appropriations bill required that the District government provide for public participation in the planning process of the prison. With the exception of two briefings earlier this year, the public has not been consulted or kept informed of events.

Because of its large federal investment ($50 million has been committed to date), Congress has a continuing obligation not only to ensure that it is built expeditiously but also that it is built at the most suitable site. My amendment to the District's fiscal 1988 appropriations bill would simply delay the availability of federal funds until the General Accounting Office can conduct a study of three alternative sites. All three sites are located on federal land and are outside residential neighborhoods.

The results of this GAO study will be submitted by Feb. 1. If one of these sites is determined to be more suitable, the District can request access to that site, and I will support that request. This action need not further delay construction of the prison. Actual construction could begin just as quickly at one of the other sites as it could at the current site, since essential design work is substantially completed.

It is my understanding that the only work the District planned between now and next spring at the current site was the demolition of certain structures. That work can proceed. It is not my amendment, but rather the discovery of prehistoric archaelogical finds and environmental reviews that have caused the delay. In fact, the archaelogical find itself could stop prison construction altogther, or at least delay it beyond February 1988 when the new site selection is to be made.

A new prison will be built, but on the most suitable, not just the first available, site. And one thing is clear: this federally funded prison should not be built in a residential neighborhood. -- Tom Harkin is a Democratic senator from Iowa.