THE two former students from Kowloon who peered through the bars at Klong Prem Prison looked bizarrely out of place. Clever, articulate and pretty - they could almost have been waiting in some central Hong Kong office but for the prison-blue overalls and the wary manner of people used to sharp and arbitrary orders. Both appeared glad to talk to someone from the outside world. The taller woman, Michelle Tse Hoi-man, had bothered to dab on a little makeup. She still cares about her appearance after nearly 18 months inside. But Tammy Sung Siu-sha's five years in prison have given her the wide-eyed, slightly bewildered look of one of the waifs in the novels of Charles Dickens. Michelle was indignant that ''time is wasting away for me'', but Tammy appeared crushed by her lengthy spell in captivity. Klong Prem Prison might not be the dank dungeon of British tabloid imagination but it is spartan, crowded and strict. It is a long way from the vegetarian family restaurant that Tammy's mother runs in Kowloon and where she expected to work after leaving school. Michelle thought she would be working in her father's fashion clothes factory. She accompanied him to Australia, Canada and Taiwan on business trips while at school. No television, no radio, no newspapers, no news. Both women crave the knowledge and colour that their monotonous lives lack. Both would like to go to university. They stared at each other with puzzlement when asked to explain what disturbed them most about jail; how do you explain to someone who has never experienced such confinement? ''Well,'' Tammy finally said with a sigh, ''you cannot control anything.'' Family visits are infrequent - less than twice a year. The two women have sharp minds - they are now fluent in Thai as well as English and Cantonese. But there are hints of some rupture in the past. Both come from broken homes. Michelle has had many months to reflect on her youth. ''I was naughty and stupid. I should have listened to my father, then I would not be here today,'' she said. Five years on, Tammy still thinks about the time her bags were searched at Don Muang airport. ''I didn't understand what was going on. I thought I could leave at any time. It was a big shock,'' she said.