GIVON PEDELTON was behind bars awaiting trial on a drug charge, but he never made it to D.C. Superior Court. Someone stabbed him to death at the D.C. jail last Wednesday evening. Mr. Pedelton is the latest inmate to be slain while in the city's custody. An inmate was also murdered last August in the Correctional Treatment Facility, located near the jail. And life behind locked gates isn't exactly safe and secure for members of the corrections staff either: Between April and August of this year, they suffered about 15 assaults. The victims' injuries included a broken hand, temporary sight loss in one eye, a broken nose and 36 stitches to one officer's face. The D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee obtained much of this information during last month's oversight hearings on the Corrections Department. Council members Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) believe that conditions appear to be worsening at both the jail and the Correctional Treatment Facility. They fear for the physical safety of corrections staff, inmates and the public, and the evidence suggests their concerns are well founded.

Corrections Director Odie Washington is aware of the problems. So is Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret Nedelkoff Kellems. But they have been on the scene even as the situation has deteriorated. The council members have called upon Mayor Anthony A. Williams to become involved. He should, without delay. That this crisis is unfolding out of public view is no reason for city hall to assign it a low priority. People are being killed and maimed while under the city's control.

Corrections, in fact, seems to be out of control. According to Judiciary Committee testimony, the city's warrant squad now has just three criminal investigators, and only two are available for duty -- two investigators to pursue more than 250 escapees at large in the Washington area. Jail overcrowding has reached dangerous proportions, with the number of inmates housed by the jail exceeding 2,300 -- well above the population cap of 1,674 imposed by a court order that was lifted in June. The implications of overcrowding on medical services, basic hygiene and control are obvious. An understaffed jail workforce now is treading on treacherous ground.

City legislators have asked the mayor to direct his staff to review the problems brought out during the hearing and to prepare a plan to address the safety, equipment and staffing issues raised. If anything, their appeal for action is too mild. There is a potential powder keg within the jail's walls. It won't go away by itself. But it can go off.