WE KEEP HEARING that a reelection campaign may be just the thing to awaken Walter Washington long enough to get real responses to the more abysmal examples of his administration's neglect. Maybe so. An opinion last week from the U.S. Court of Appeals here certainly points up one failure that could use the mayor's serious attention - and could have for the 10 years he's been in city hall. It is the treatment of prisoners in the D.C. jail. The case has been in the courts for a good seven years now, exhausting even teh renowed patience of U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant and producing both a series of court orders and a string of excuses for inaction on the part of local government.

In a 2-to-1 opinion, the appeals court has now upheld the substance of Judge Bryant's findings, and has concluded that the construction of a new jail facility neither cures the problems nor moots the case. U.S. Circuit Judges David L. Bazelon and Harold Leventhal point to the city's poor record of compliance in the past: "The life of pretrial detainees at the District of Columbia Jail has been marked by deprivation, neglect and degradation," Judge Bazelon wrote, adding that the opening of the new jail "does not moot the case, for the danger of future violations continues to exist."

The Washington administration, however, has maintained that it was doing all it could and - get this - that the federal court shouldn't be intervening. It contends that the case should be resolved by the local courts whose judge put the bulk of the inmates in the jail in the first place. Only U.S. Circuit Judge George E. MacKinnon bought the argument that the existence of the new jail makes things fine and that the city is doing all it can, anyway.

What is at issue are the rights of inmates to "decent custodial care." There is a special point here beyond the self-evident one that prisoners should not be dealt with in a cruel and degrading fashion. It is that jails are not the same things as prisons, where cosnvicted criminals serve their sentences. Jails are supposed to be pretrial detention centers for people charged with crimes. And the measures ordered by Judge Byrant were meant to impose nothing more than a rasonably decent standard of living for human beings in the jail - and never mind whether it's the old building or the new. These are matters that should not be dismissed with a stack of legal appeals and poor-mouthings about budgetary problems. Until there is complete compliance by this city administration or a new one, the courts must continue to bear down heavily to get results.