The prison where "the Antakya Three" live resembles a great pink barge floating in mud. The chain-link perimeter encloses a lettuce patch going to seed, a bust of the national hero, Ataturk, and a general air of inefficiency. The guards tote machine guns, but they are less menacing than the soldiers who hold the rest of Adana under martial law.

Adana Ceza Evi -- literally, "punishment house" -- is not the fictional hellhole of the movie "Midnight Express," but it is not summer camp either. Seven years after they were caught in a spectacularly unsuccessful drug smuggling escapade, Joann McDaniel, 35, Katherine Zenz, 34, and Robert Hubbard, 29, are accustomed to discomfort, isolation, occasional violence and, perhaps worst of all, the rise and fall of false hopes.

Somehow the drama of young Americans locked up in Turkey has attracted people who would never think to visit a prison in their own country. Con men have appeared offering amnesty or escape. Headline-hunting American politicians have made the case a small thorn in the side of U.S.-Turkish relations. A German artist staged a hunger strike at the Turkish parliament to dramatize the case. An Oregon musical group based a record on it.

During three recent visit, the prisoners' spirits were high with new hopes of freedom. They have official papers promising their release March 12. Failing that, the U.S. Senate has ratified a treaty with Turkey which could bring transfer to an American prison with a chance of quick parole.

But in each instance there is a hitch, and it is possible that the three Americans will remain here until the summer of 1982.

America still had a war going in Vietnam in 1972 and the Watergate scandal had barely stirred when McDaniel, Zenz and Hubbard met in a Munich restuarant. McDaniel had left Oregon three years earlier to see Europe, subsisting on odd jobs along the way. Zenz was on vacation from a nursing job in San Francisco. Hubbard, who grew up on a succession of Army bases, was on the way to nowhere is particular.

They used Zenz' credit card to rent three Volkwagen minibuses from a Frankfort agency and drove them 2,000 miles to Lebanon. Hubbard packed the upholstery, beds and tanks of the vehicles with 180 kilograms -- 396 pounds -- of Lebanese hashish.

The three were crossing the border between Syria and Turkey when Turkish customs officers began to go over the vans with a sense of purpose. An officer pried loose the ceiling panel of the car McDaniel was driving, and a cascade of hashish bricks tumbled out.

The three drivers, along with four hitchhikers who were aboard at the time, were taken to Antakya -- the biblical town of Antioch. The hitchhickers paid an unusually large bail, $3,600 each, and left the country; though they never returned, they were tried with the others and acquitted.

In hopes of avoiding a conviction on the heavier charge of conspiracy, Hubbard pled guilty to smuggling and testified that the two women were ignorant of the scheme. Nonetheless, all three were convicted of both smuggling and conspiracy.

In December 1973, McDaniel, Zenz and Hubbard were sentenced to life in prison. It was the strictest sentence meted out for a drug crime in Turkey in modern memory, and it was the beginning of a new era of extreme sentences for drug offenders. Among those who later felt the new mood was Billy Hayes, the young protagonist of "Midnight Express." Hayes was near the end of a 4 1/2-year term for hashish possession when, in 1975, an appeals court changed his crime to smuggling and his sentence to 30 years.

Since the trial, the women have persisted in claiming their innocence. However in recent visits, McDaniel, at least, was no longer adamant about it.

"I think that's kind of irrelevant now," she said. "I think the situation was well stated by the former American consul here. He said we were young, foolish and full of fun."

Immediately after they were sentenced, McDaniel said, "the lawyers started telling us there was an amnesty coming," said McDaniel.

Periodically during the ensuing six years, the prospect of amnesty seemed so good that the women packed up their heavy belongings -- guitars, a cherished treadle sewing machine donated by Americans from nearby Incirlik Air Base -- and shipped them home.

"It's like a joke," said McDaniel. "We call it spring housecleaning."

The amnesities came and freed hundreds of Turks, but they merely whittled the Americans' sentence to 24 years.

For more than three years now, the prisoners have waited as Turkish and American officials negotiated a prisoner transfer treaty, similar to one America has with Mexico and Turkey has with the European Economic Community. It would allow prisoners to request transfer to jails in their native land. The treaty was initialed last summer and has cleared the U.S. Senate, but it must pass both houses of the Turkish parliament, where politicians are preoccupied with raging inflation and civil strife.

McDaniel and Zenz say even if the treaty is ratified, they may be reluctant to take advantage of it. Transfer home would mean an American criminal record and a new prison not at all guaranteed to be homier than the Adana penitentiary.

"We write to people in prison back home, and it makes us nervous to think of moving," said Zenz. "At least here we don't fear for our lives. In some prisons in America, you live with that fear every day."

For the Americans here, a brighter hope seems to be a 1979 Turkish law which shortened all life sentences. Many Turks were set free.

But local prosecutors and Turkish courts are at odds over the law. The prosecutor in Adana says it means the Americans can go free after serving seven years and three months, and he has issued release papers for March. But the Turkish Supreme Court has since given the law a different interpretation, which would keep the three in Adana until July 1982.

During a visit in early December, the inmates had just gotten the depressing news that the government would begin rounding Turkish prisoners "mistakenly" set free under the more lenient interpretation.

As if the Turkish legal system did not provide suspense enough, an exotic cast of good Samaritans, exhibitionists and profiteers has appeared over the past six years to play on the hopes of the prisoners.

One was a Wisconsin "civic developer" who promised to pull strings for them if they would give him names of others involved in drug dealing. He convinced the parents of McDaniel and Zenz to pay him $4,000 to arrange an escape, then disappeared when they spurned his demand for an additional $24,000.

A legitimate friend of the families also explored ways to bribe the women out, but gave up when one tempted official couldn't promise to get them as far as the border.

Some American politicans adopted the celebrated case as a "human rights" issue.

Oregon Gov. Robert Straub, impatient with the State Department's progress toward a transfer treaty, sent the U.S. amgassador to Turkey a private letter in 1977 suggesting an ad hoc prisoner swap. Let McDaniel go, he said, and he would send home any Turk imprisoned in Oregon "on similar charges." Leaving aside the fact that Straub had no Turkish prisoners to bargain with, government lawyers pointed out that deporation is beyond the power of a governor, and would be a nasty, probably unconstitutional, surprise for any Turkish prisoner involved.

Rep. Hal Sawyer, a Michigan Republican who latched onto the case in his freshman term, tried a tougher approach. He urged his colleagues to postpone lifting a Turkish arms embargo until Turkey signed a transfer treaty. Democratic Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, Zenz' home state, tried to hold up the sale of three warships to Turkey until they released her.

Not the least of the exploiters were the producers of "Midnight Express," who marketed their film as if it were a humanitarian crusade for Americans imprisoned overseas. The film takes Billy Hayes' true story of his life in two Turkish prisons and his nonviolent 1975 escape, and turns it into a brutal melodrama full of loathsome Turkish stereotypes and complete with a gory, wholly imaginary finale. A trailer at the end implies that the film was a moving force behind prisoner negotiations, when in fact "Midnight Express" so angered the Turks that for a time it threatened any chance of a treaty.

Like Hayes, the Antakya Three have received offers of book contracts, and they have collected diaries and letters with that in mind.

If the three do write a book, they say, it will contain a more sympathetic portrait of Turkey than "Midnight Express."

Though they have had painful bouts of depression, the three seemed in astonishingly good humor during a series of recent interviews. mark Tokola, the American vice counsul in Adana, said that is typical of them: "It's sort of backwards. They cheer me up."

McDaniel and Zenz lives in a single, open-bay dormitory with about 40 other woemen, a few children, several cats and, when rain floods the basement, a population of rats. The room has no heat or hot water and is so noisy the Americans often wear earplugs.

The children of Turkish inmates toddle precariously around a 15-foot stairwell which drops down to a communal kitchen and washing area, smelling powerfully of toilets, stale food and dirty diapers. Outside, the women have a 50-foot square concrete courtyard for hanging laundry and taking exercise.

Hubbard has been in three Turkish prisons since the arrest and says Adana is the most pleasant -- especially compared to a penitentiary in eastern Turkey where he was moved to make room for POWs during the Cyprus war. That institution, he said, had violent, quick-tempered guards, a room full of medieval-looking disciplinary instruments ("I never had the pleasure of visiting") and bedbugs so bad he once woke up with a bloody pillow and an eye swollen shut.

The men's quarters in Adana house 1,500 prisoners in crowded 50-bunk dormitories surrounding an open concrete courtyard. For two years, however, Hubbard had a private cell. Then last summer he was given a job gardening and patching the swimming pool reserved for prison staff. He sleeps now in a trusty cell, moves around the perimeter pretty freely and has the chance to swim on hot summer days.

Hubbard cherishes his outside assignment so highly that recently, when he contracted hepatitis, he at first refused to summon a doctor from the air base for fear he would be moved back inside. He could probably walk away from the prison -- two Turks did so while I was in Adana -- but he figures the likely punishment is too severe to risk it.

No such outside work is available for the women inmates. McDaniel and Zenz leave their crowded quarters only when the American consular office comes to visit and bring mail every two weeks.

They have been in the prison longer than any of the Turkish women. Their companions are mostly peasant women jailed for crimes ranging from murder and theft to -- Turkey being a rigid society for women -- adultery.

The women have made many friends in the prison, but are generally regarded as curiosities. The Turks call them "infidels" and marvel at their peculiar western ways, especially the fact that they are unmarried in what, for a Turkish woman, would be middle age.

The American eat well. Three or four times a week a Turkish woman who lives near the prison does their grocery shopping, an act of charity she has preformed faithfully for six years. They cook the fine local produce Turkish style over the communal gas burner, and relish the food so much that they often leave gifts from the air base mess hall uneaten.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas American military families bring in traditional turkey dinner, which usually leaves a melancholy aftertaste. Last year, McDaniel excused herself with a headache.

McDaniel and Zenz pay for their food, with money left over, by selling handicrafts they crochet, sew and knit and market through the air base under their own whimsical label, "Under Lock and Key Creations."

The prison is not home, but they have made it something close to that, and their seven-year investment in the place is the main reason they are wary of the pending prisoner transfer treaty.

"We have adjusted to this situation after seven years," McDaniel siad. "We know what it's like. It's not foreign anymore. Kathy and I even speak Turkish to each other. Our own culture would probably be foreign to us.

"We haven't been mistreated, not really. The worst thing about it is just being here."