When Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) vowed Dec. 19, 1984, to hold D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's feet to the fire to pressure him to build a new prison, the senator predicted: "When faced with the evolving factual picture, Mayor Barry will agree we need additional jail facilities."

Two weeks later, during a Senate subcommittee hearing on prison overcrowding, chairman Specter's prediction came true. Barry, who had been adamantly opposed to expanding the city's jail space, reversed his stand and even suggested a possible site: the D.C. Jail.

More than a year later, after months of debate about where to build a new prison, Barry announced that it would, in fact, be constructed adjacent to the existing jail in Southeast Washington.

And last week, amid charges that Barry and some D.C. Council members were delaying decisions on the new prison until after the Sept. 9 primary, Barry and the council announced that hearings will be held Sept. 10, with the prison facility expected to open in late 1989.

The 19 months since Barry announced he favored increasing the city's prison space have been among the most tumultuous in the history of the D.C. Department of Corrections, with charges of inept management, calls for a special master to run the prisons, a number of serious inmate uprisings, and demands that the city be held in contempt for violating court orders on prison conditions.

Critics accuse city officials of dragging their feet on solutions to the crisis, such as building a jail or using more alternatives to incarceration. The past 19 months, critics say, are an extension of the previous 13 years of inaction on prison issues.

"What they have been doing is sitting around playing politics about where to build a jail and when to do it and reacting from crisis to crisis," said Alvin Bronstein, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, which represents D.C. Jail inmates.

According to D.C. Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), who has long advocated a new prison, "The procrastination of the mayor and the council chairman David A. Clarke has been ridiculous.

"People have waited and waited and waited. It has become a government of action and reaction, and it is everybody's fault but ours. But it is our fault," said Wilson, who noted that the council has deliberately obstructed a new prison because a majority of the members favor alternatives to incarceration.

City Administrator Thomas M. Downs denied last week that the city has not moved quickly to try to ease prison overcrowding, but he said that D.C. efforts at times have been hindered by poor planning and community opposition.

Still, he said, the city has added more than 2,000 prison beds since 1980, has begun some alternative sentencing programs and is ready to implement other measures.

Three elements emerge in the debate about the prison crisis:

A permanent prison in the city. Barry's announcement in March that the city would construct a $50 million, 700-to-800-bed drug treatment facility and prison near the D.C. Jail was attacked by civil libertarians who said the city "can't build its way out of the overcrowding crisis" and by the federal government, which complained that the facility was overdue and, as planned, too small.

Temporary prison facilities. Justice Department officials, noting that more than 2,500 city inmates are housed in federal prisons, insisted that the city use short-term solutions, such as housing inmates in tents and trailers or renovating D.C. government-owned buildings for jails. City officials said they have implemented some short-term housing, have been beaten back by community opposition in other attempts, and that Justice's solutions could not pass constitutional guarantees for humane inmate housing.

Alternatives to incarceration. Attorneys for D.C. inmates, civil libertarians and many D.C. Council members favor the use of alternatives, such as intensive parole and third-party custody programs, and increasing the number of halfway houses in the city. Federal officials generally oppose such solutions, arguing that many city criminals are repeat offenders and should be incarcerated for the public's safety.

In July 1985, the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on the District added $30 million to the District's 1986 and 1987 budgets for a new prison, and Specter said he hoped a 1,000-bed prison could be completed in two years.

In late April 1985, Barry announced that he and the D.C. Council would create a prison study commission to recommend what type of facility to build and where it should be located. He set a six-month deadline for the commission to report. The 15-member panel was not named until three months later, and its deadline was postponed to January 1986.

Barry now concedes that the commission was a mistake. Most members were opposed to the idea of a new prison from the start, and, nine months later, when the panel issued its final vote, it recommended not building a prison but using alternatives to incarceration.

Last week Council Chairman Clarke and other council members, casting the debate as a home rule issue, restated their opposition to a new prison in the city, arguing that Barry was too quick in promising that a prison would be built here when there are 2,500 unused acres of land at Lorton Reformatory, the city-run prison complex in southeastern Fairfax County where eight facilities are located.

The boiling over of the prison crisis can be traced to the August 1985 decision by U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant to set a 1,694-inmate population ceiling at the D.C. Jail. The Justice Department agreed to house temporarily in federal prisons all city inmates sentenced in D.C. Superior Court to help the city meet Bryant's limit.

On Jan. 15, however, Justice officials canceled the agreement, charging that while they had accepted more than 1,700 D.C. inmates into the federal Bureau of Prisons, the city had made no headway in building a new prison or coming up with temporary solutions to the jail crisis.

Barry, after meeting with Justice officials the next day, said he expected them to provide the city with a list of 10 federally owned sites where the city could build a jail.

Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen responded a month later with three sites -- the old D.C. Jail site near the existing jail, St. Elizabeths Hospital grounds, and a tract of land near McMillan Reservoir in Northwest, but Barry called those proposals "not helpful at all."

On March 21, Barry announced that a new facility would be constructed just south of the D.C. Jail adjacent to Congressional Cemetery.

As a prerequisite to resuming its agreement to house city inmates in federal prisons, U.S. officials also told the city that it would have to take short-term steps to relieve overcrowding. Federal officials said that the city has refused to explore this idea seriously.

The city is constructing a 400-bed modular prison at Lorton, with the first 200 beds scheduled for occupancy by Oct. 1 and the remaining 200 by Feb. 1, according to Downs. He said this fulfills the city's obligation to the Justice Department for "quick turnaround" prison facilities.

The city has tried to open temporary jails at an old police precinct station house on Ninth Street NE, at the old Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW, and it tried to send inmates to a private prison in western Pennsylvania but was thwarted on each effort.

A federal official, who declined to be quoted by name, said that the city was "going in the right direction" on these proposals, then stopped making the efforts. Justice has repeatedly told the city that it should explore temporary solutions ranging from tents, to trailers, to old schoolhouses and other vacant D.C. government-owned buildings, but to no avail, he said.

When Barry asked Norman Carlson, head of the federal Bureau of Prisons, to take city inmates into federal prisons after inmates set fire to dormitories at Lorton's Occoquan I and II facilities on July 10, Carlson initially refused and instead offered to give the city tents for the inmates.

"Next time, tents won't be our opening offer," the federal officials said. "Tents will be our final offer."

When Bryant ordered the city to reduce its jail population to 1,694 inmates, the city signed a consent agreement, promising to implement a host of measures aimed at reducing overcrowding. They included increasing the number of halfway houses in the city; implementing an inmate classification system to determine what level of security is needed for prisoners at Lorton and the jail; timely release of inmates eligible for parole; seeking reductions of minimum sentences, and supporting the Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act, which would enable the mayor to advance inmate parole dates by 90 days if the city's jails come within 5 percent of their capacity.

Two months ago, attorneys for the D.C. Jail inmates sought to have the city held in contempt for having done "little or nothing to relieve jail overcrowding" and failing "to implement, or even seriously consider, possible alternatives to incarcerating residents at the jail."

According to Downs, the city expects to increase halfway house spaces from 440 to 736 by the court-ordered deadline of Oct. 1.

A "state-of-the-art" inmate classification system will be "on line" by the same date, and $400,000 has been appropriated this year for an intensive probation program for about 200 inmates, he said.

Staff writers Arthur S. Brisbane, Sandra Evans, Nancy Lewis and Tom Sherwood contributed to this report.