The turncoats of society are a despised breed. In the closed world of a prison, for example, they are the untouchables who volunteer to work against their cellmates.

They can be found, isolated and lonely, in the middle of Mississippi's sprawling Parchman prison camp. They live in the best available quarters, a ramshackle assortment of houses, some with their own private shacks.

They are a motley collection of inmates whose mission, under the guidance of officers, is to track down and capture any prisoner who tries to escape from Parchman.

They live with a pack of pedigreed bloodhounds who can follow the scent of a man for days across the fields, bayous and thick mud gumbo of the northern Mississippi delta. These privileged inmates, skilled at hot pursuit, are known appropriately as the "dog boys."

Our roving reporter, Hal Bernton, lived and worked briefly with the dog boys. They were the pariahs of the prison, enjoying little luxuries from the authorities in return for chasing down escaped prisoners.

The chase can be strenuous, a rugged race across the countryside sometimes for 15 or 20 miles at a stretch. Except for extra creature comforts, they receive no pay for their manhunts. A day is reduced from their sentence, however, for each day of work.

Yet the dog boys pay a price for their small privileges. A smoldering hatred has grown up between the inmates who run the dogs and the rest of the prison populace. Their lives could be in danger if they tripped over some prison rule and wound up back in the inmate cages.

They are marked men. One actually has a price on his head. Other convicts have offered $750 for his murder. The only convicts he can trust are his fellow dog boys. He dares not walk alone outside his unit.

Late one night, our reporter was rousted out of bed and sent on a manhunt. A convicted murderer, locked up for life, had broken out. He had set his clothes on fire to divert the guards. Then he had raced across the darkened prison yard, scaled the barbedwire chain fence and vanished into the thick fog which enshrouds the wet delta farmland.

But within 15 minutes, a hefty fellow named Hercules was in swift pursuit. He strained to hold back his running dog Buck as they sloshed through the thick mud. The mud clung to his feet, making it extremely difficult to run. Just ahead sprinted the escaping inmate, crashing through bramble patches and splashing across the bayous.

Another crew of dog boys, meanwhile, were trucked down the road where they tried to cut off his escape route. Using high-powered flashlights, they sent stabs of light into the dense fog. Finally, the dogs picked up his trail on the other side of the highway.

The trail led into the middle of a vast field of shriveled cotton plants. But the fog made it impossible to see more than four feet ahead. They groped through the fog all night.

Bernton's unit checked out a deserted cotton gin. Then the dogs began leading them in circles. The escaped prisoner, disoriented by the fog, had lost his sense of direction. "Hell," grumped one dog boy, "we're just tracking each other now."

But a few minutes later, they spotted against the breaking grey dawn a lone figure in the middle of a cotton field. He didn't resist as the dog boys quickly handcuffed him. "If it wasn't for the mud," he muttered, "I'd have made it."

Coal Goal -- President Carter has concluded that the nation must use more coal, its most abundant energy resource, to overcome the energy crisis. Yet he may find coal more difficult to extract from the bureaucracy than from the ground.

The Federal Energy Administration sympathizes with the captains of industry, who shudder at the cost of converting their plants to coal. It may be more than idle coincidence, therefore, that the agency's most celebrated obstructionist has been placed in charge of the coal office.

He is Jim Rubin, who distinguished himself last year by destroying documents sought by a House subcommittee. The energy administrators concluded he was the right man to handle the changeover to coal.

During their three-year effort to reduce oil comsumption, they haven't compelled a songle private company to switch to coal. The reason for this, according to an internal memo, is that the agency has spent too much time analyzing instead of acting.

The agency is supposed to order certain oil-burning facilities to convert to coal. But the effort has become bogged down in technical legal analyses.

Footnote: Rubin blamed the lawyers for the delays. "It's part of my job," he explained, "to follow legal orders."