THANKS TO SOME 15 years of gutless prison politics by more elected city officials than anybody should care to remember, the District of Columbia has a highly dangerous prison situation on its hands -- with almost everyone involved dissatisfied and frustrated. The crisis -- and this really can be called one -- poses both an immediate threat to the city's residents and inmates and a long-range challenge to the Barry administration. Neither can wait any longer; and both require a serious response that acknowledges the desperate need for more prison space in the District.

First, to the immediate mess: after years of ignoring, defying and otherwise failing to meet court orders for humane treatment of all inmates, the city has more people to incarcerate than it has spaces. As a result, authorities have been resorting to keeping inmates for up to 10 hours on buses outside the jail to keep that facility from going over its limit as determined by the court. In the meantime, without any reasonable notice or attention to the affected neighborhood, city officials have been renovating a building at 525 9th St. NE to house inmates.

While the neighbors are awaiting another court hearing tomorrow in their fight to block the new facility from opening, the bigger question about where to build a new prison lingers unanswered. First it was Mayor Barry who refused to face the fact that a prison is needed and that the federal government was offering money and land for it. When the mayor did come around but didn't follow through all that quickly, the federal government said it would stop relieving the overcrowding by taking inmates in federal facilities -- and the mayor moved with a list of possible sites.

Then the Justice Department started to take control with all sorts of new conditions and decisions on possible sites. And since then the Barry administration and Justice have gone back and forth without reaching an agreement -- while unhelpful members of the D.C. Council have taken the easy, popular route of pretending either that no prison is needed or that any additional space should be out of sight, out of the District and in Lorton.

It's not easy to undo years of inaction. But right now -- today -- Mayor Barry and Justice Department representatives should sit down, negotiate and keep at it until they agree on a site for a new prison. With that key decision nailed down, Justice could agree to resume its relief assistance until the new prison is ready for business. And if council members and others come up with serious new policies for reducing the inmate population without increasing the danger to public safety, all the better.