To prison officials, lunch on Southeast II, a cell block at the D.C. Jail, is known as "feeding time." Carts piled high with trays are rolled into the cell block and pandemonium seems to reign as inmates shout and push to be first in line.

From inside "the bubble," a glass-enclosed security center, a corrections officer monitors the activity. About 50 inmates surround the bubble, some banging on the glass and yelling, making it almost impossible for its occupant to see two other officers who are outside, in the cell block.

A prisoner yells through a crack, complaining that he's not supposed to be there. "I'm only a misdemeanor, and you got me in here with all these felonies!" he says, as a wall of prisoners, pushing toward a food cart, mashes him against the glass. "I'm scared! I'm getting all my stuff stolen!"

The officer doesn't have time to listen. He's too busy watching the other officers. Unarmed, they are surrounded by an assortment of 159 murderers, rapists, drug addicts and thieves in an area designed to hold 80.

"Eight hours in here drains you," another officer says, raising his voice to be heard. "The level of noise is so severe, the air so stale -- it all gets in your head and it begins to hurt. This is what makes someone go off."

Overcrowding is a fact of life at the D.C. Jail, a phenomenon so chronic and insidious that it affects the lives of everyone involved, from the inmates and the corrections officers to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who was held in contempt of court last year for not complying with guidelines restricting it at the jail. And no one has a solution for the problem.

Located four blocks south of RFK Stadium, the five-story, 18-cell block jail was designed to hold about 1,378 prisoners. The last time the population was that low was Oct. 29, 1980, when 1,355 inmates were incarcerated. "From that day forward, [the number] kept going up," says Leroy B. Anderson, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Corrections.

About half the inmates at the jail are awaiting trial. The remainder have been convicted of misdemeanors or are felons who are "backed up" at the jail because there is no space at Lorton Reformatory, the District's prison in Fairfax County, which also is overcrowded.

This fall, when the number of prisoners at the jail began to approach 2,400, corrections Director James Palmer instigated a wholesale shuffle of 900 inmates between the jail and Lorton, which reduced the jail's population by 125. Since then, the number of inmates at the jail has leveled off at about 2,300.

The numbers may change, but the impact is the same. Inmates sometimes go for weeks without routine medical attention, according to doctors and inmates. As many as 180 are housed in cell blocks built for 80. They sleep in hallways and recreation areas and they are "double-bunked" in 7-by-10 foot cells designed for one person.

Because of sheer volume, breakfast is delivered to some inmates at 2:30 a.m., and if a prisoner is asleep, he goes without, according to an attorney who represents inmates. The usual rising time is 4 a.m., so prisoners can prepare for court appearances and work release.

On South III, the jail's mental-health unit, there are no more spaces for psychologically disturbed male inmates, and 20 persons who should be there are instead locked in general population cell blocks, according to an officer on the block.

In the past, convicted criminals, who are jailed in the south wings, wore purple jumpsuits so they could be distinguished from those awaiting trial, who are housed in the north wings and wore orange suits. Now, the jumpsuits are issued haphazardly, the most visible sign that resources have been stretched to the limit.

Chronic overcrowding has increased the tension between prisoners, who complain of inhumane living conditions, and employes at the jail, who say they simply can't cope with the administrative nightmares that overcrowding has created.

The problems are borne out by corrections department figures: In 1979 and 1980, there were 15 fights between inmates and 24 assaults on guards. In the last two years, when overcrowding has been worse, there were 231 fights between inmates and 127 attacks on guards.

The inmates get angry " . . . and they take it out on the corrections officers," says Bernard Demczuk, political director of the American Federation of Government Employes, Local 1550, and a union representative at the jail.

"They rely on us to see their 'C and P' classification and parole officers, to go to the visiting hall, to see doctors. And we don't have enough officers to give them what they need . . . . When you leave at night, the first thing you want to do is stop in the parking lot with the others and have a drink."

Among corrections officers at the jail, Demczuk says, alcoholism, drug abuse and divorce is up. According to department figures, five officers were fired in 1979 for disciplinary reasons. Since then, the number has skyrocketed, and last year 47 were fired, including seven who were absent without leave.

Among inmates, there have been 11 suicides at the jail since 1979, the department says. In the last two years, there were 18 sexual assaults among inmates and 27 "serious" fires, defined as those bad enough to be reported to the director. When questioned about a fire a few months ago, a department spokesman said, "Jesus, why do you guys [the media] get so worked up over a fire? The day we don't have a fire at the jail is when it's news."

On Southwest II, the floor is pockmarked with burns. Three officers, two of whom have been on the job less than a year, are guarding 175 inmates.

Each cell has toilet facilities and was built to hold one prisoner, but bunkbeds have been moved in and the entire cell block is "doubled-up." In addition, the room where inmates used to play cards and watch television has been converted into a dormitory that now sleeps 14. One of the cells has been vacated and the 14 men use that as their bathroom. Water and urine form puddles on the floor.

"It's hard to keep the bathroom clean when so many people are using it," an inmate says. "I'd like to clean it, but it's not worth it."

There are 181 inmates next door on Southwest III, and the paperwork there has been backed up for more than a week. An officer, flipping through a pile of 59 forms from inmates who want to see their parole officers, shakes his head in disgust. "Some of these are legitimate complaints."

"We're supposed to check the cells to make sure no one is being raped," another officer says. "There are emergency medical problems to take care of, [inmate] visits to the chaplain's office, calls for legal business. We need two officers in the bubble at all times. If there's more than one [officer] on the floor, you can't protect them. We can take more [inmates] in here to watch them, but we can't administer them. We can't get tissue paper, we can't get support."

On North II, a pretrial unit, bunkbeds have been set up in the cell block's hallway. "When we have people in the cells, it's easy to maintain control," an officer says. "When they sleep in the hallways or the recreation room in dormitory situations, it's a lot harder to maintain discipline."

In the jail's infirmary, the situation is not much different. More than 40 new inmates enter the jail each day, according to department records, and each must have a mandatory medical checkup before being assigned to a cell block, a doctor in the infirmary says.

The inmates are kept in a holding area called "the cage" while waiting for their physical. At one point this fall, according to a nurse, 20 to 25 inmates slept on the floor of the cage every night. With just one doctor on duty, they couldn't be seen quickly enough. In the meantime, inmates throughout the institution were backed up on sick call. Finally, when it looked like the worst was over, there was yet another problem. All the inmates had had their physicals, but there was nowhere to house them. As a result, they spent two more days living in the cage and sleeping on mattresses, the doctor says.

A lawyer representing 17 of those inmates asked U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant to again hold Mayor Barry in contempt of court for allegedly violating overcrowding guidelines set by Bryant in 1982. The judge has not ruled on the request.

Morale among corrections officers, many say, is poor. There is a feeling that under extremely stressful conditions they must do more than their jobs call for.

"I've put out more fires in the last three years than the average firefighter puts out in five," one officer says. "We are not just guards. We're police officers, firefighters, paramedics -- everything."

Considering the broad sweep of their responsibilities, the officers claim they are underpaid. A new corrections officer starts at $15,600 a year, while District police and firefighters begin at $19,850.

Officers say that there are too many newcomers in their ranks, brought on by a high turnover rate. In the first half of this year, the Department of Corrections lost 5 percent of its officers. At one point in 1980, that figure was 25 percent, according to department records.

One officer assigned to the jail for 13 years says he doesn't know 30 percent of the other officers because of turnover and the fact that each shift at the jail has two roll calls, so the officers don't get to see or know many of their coworkers.

Demczuk calls the lack of familiarity with other officers "the cardinal sin" of penology. It was blamed for the escape last July of three inmates who dressed in guards' uniforms and walked out of the jail in broad daylight. One escapee remains at large.

"This is the worst I've ever seen the jail," says a female inmate, a drug addict who has been imprisoned "at least twice every year since 1977 for the same crime -- shoplifting."

"Just because I'm in here and dried out, the problem is not solved. Ninety-nine percent of the people here have drug problems but no skills. And 99 percent of us will be back because we don't get any training."

With mandatory sentencing laws enacted by the District, and the city's refusal to expand the size of the jail, Demczuk says, "the burden falls on the mayor, the Congress, Palmer and the other department heads, the Reagan administration and the courts . . . to solve this overwhelming problem. We can deal with the overcrowding, if that's what the courts are doing sentencing more criminals . But we need the tools to make the seemingly impossible possible."

The head administrator of the jail, William Long, agrees. "The problem belongs to the city, a whole lot of people. We don't have the power to put out a no-vacancy sign."