IT IS WEDNESDAY, and there is still no indication that Mayor Barry has resolved a highly volatile jail and prison mess in the capital city. Even forgetting for a moment all the years of failure on the part of two city administrations to respond properly to court orders, the immediate situation has become as ludicrous as it is grotesque. Inmates have been doing time in buses between here and Pennsylvania, cooped up and shackled; Pennsylvania officials have protested the maneuver -- with cause, since they weren't informed of it; and neighbors in Northeast, also caught by surprise with an emergency "jail" being set up in their midst, are asking for an easing of a court-ordered ceiling on the jail population. So far, everybody's losing.

All of it boils down to pressure -- from the courts, the Justice Department, the protesting neighbors -- on the city to do something sensible with the people who are supposed to be in a jail or in a prison here. The latest plea is from the neighbors, who want U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant to stay his own directive setting a prison population ceiling. Much as we sympathize with those who object to the "instant jail" that was slapped together literally under their window sills, Judge Bryant should stick to his order. Any letup would invite still more delays on the part of the city in complying with longstanding court orders against cruel and unusual punishment of any inmates -- whether it's in a crowded jail or rolling around in a bus.

Instead of grasping at patchwork arrangements, the city administration should be going around-the- clock with the Justice Department to come up with an agreement on a site for a new prison. Until that happens, there won't be any letup in the prison mess. With a definite site and a construction deadline, Justice could agree to resume taking inmates temporarily at federal facilities until the new prison opens. In the meantime, there should be no letup in the pressure on the mayor to get the go-ahead -- and get that prison built.