At least four prisoners escaped from the new D.C. Jail last night by cutting through bars, on a third-floor window and shinnying down a makeshift rope of bedsheets. One of the escapees was quickly recaptured.

Scores of police, some with dogs and many wearing flak jackets, flooded the area around the jail at 19th Street and Massachusetts Avenue SE within minutes after the breakout was reported about 10:30 p.m.

The escape, which came at a time of controversy over budget-imposed layoffs of jail guards, was similar to an earlier jailbreak in which four inmates, also using bedsheets, fled from the detention facility shortly after it opened in 1976.

In last night's escape, inmates apparently used hacksaw blades to cut through one of the three horizontal bars running across a cell window on the jail's northwest side.

After forcing open the cell's sealed window pane, they used a makeshift rope of eight or nine bedsheets to lower themselves to the ground, and then climbed over an eight-foot masonry wall to the street outside the jail grounds.

Police said two ladders were found resting against the inside of the wall near the intersection of Potomac Avenue and 19th Street, where the inmates are believed to have climbed out.

Investigators said the presence of the aluminum ladders, possibly taken from a nearby construction site, suggested that the men may have had confederates outside who aided in the escape.

The inmate recaptured last night was picked up at 13th and E streets SE, about one-half mile west of the jail after a D.C. police officer in a patrol car spotted a man in what appeared to be jail-issue denims.

Police identified him as James Rufus Lee, 31. Authorities said last night that he was awaiting trial on charges of kidnaping, assault and burglary. n

The three inmates still at large early today were identified as Samuel Byrd, 26, Larry Wallace, 24, and Ronald Givens, 34.

In contrast to the city's reformatory at Lorton, which is designed to hold people who have been both convicted and sentenced, the D.C. Jail's primary function is to hold criminal suspects awaiting trial or sentencing.

Authorities said last night that Byrd was awaiting trial on charges of murder, robbery and assault on a police officer. They said Wallace had been charged with armed robbery. Givens had been convicted of assault with intent to rape and was awaiting trial on various drug charges, officials said.

Initial reports last night indicated that others of the jail's approximately 960 inmates might have participated in the escape, and authorities said they could not be certain of the exact figure until completing a count. The tally was still under way early today.

According to early accounts, last night's escape was spotted by a jail guard who saw through a second-floor window the men climbing down the bedsheets from the floor above.

The process and timing by which he sounded the alarm was not immediately known. Guards inside the jail are not armed, and there was no report of any shots being fired.

About 70 inmates are housed, one to a cell, in the jail's northwest 3 sector, the area from which the escape occurred. Reportedly they were under the supervision of two jail guards last night.

Persons familiar with jail operations said that it would have been possible for the inmates to flee undetected while one of the guards was at his post in a control area and the other was patrolling a remote section of the cell block.

An official of the union that represents guards at the jail asserted that while 405 persons are required to operate the facility properly, only about 340 are now employed there.

As part of Mayor Marion Barry's plan to avoid a potential $172 million budget deficit, the corrections department has announced plans to lay off 225 employes.

The union official, Bernard Demczuk, said that 41 persons working at the jail have received layoff notices. He said several of them are taking accumulated sick leave now rather than report for work.

There was no immediate indication last night, however, that a shortage in personnel contributed to the escape.

The $30 million jail was opened March 29, 1976 as a replacement for its 100-year-old predecessor, which had been the scene of cellblock takeovers and sit-down strikes by rebellious inmates demanding better conditions.

Although officials declined at the time of the new jail's opening to declare it escape proof, they said they expected security there to be much better than at the old jail, from which there had been several escapes in the 1970s.

The first escape at the new jail occurred Aug. 26, 1976, a few months after it opened.

Using techniques similar to those believed employed last night, four inmates cut through a window frame with a hacksaw and climbed to the ground with bedsheets. Subsequently, authorities said defects in the window frames would be corrected.

As a helicopter clattered overhead, D.C. police and other law enforcement officers combed the neighborhood of the jail last night and early today, giving special scrutiny to the nearby Congressional Cemetery. SWAT teams prowled through vacant houses.

At one point in the tense search, Deputy Chief Robert Klotz pointed to the rope of sheets, swaying in the breeze.

"Haven't seen anything like that since the late-night Jimmy Cagney movies," he said.