A Utah prison official was named yesterday as chief of Virginia's troubled Mecklenburg Correctional Center, ending a prolonged search to fill the job, which has remained open since May, shortly after six death row inmates escaped from the prison.

Toni V. Bair, 46, deputy warden of the Utah State Prison near Salt Lake City, was named chief of the maximum security prison near the North Carolina border.

Bair said he accepted the job because, "I love the challenge."

Mecklenburg has been at the center of an intense controversy over the operation of Virginia's correctional institutions. In response to numerous studies outlining serious security and management deficiencies at Mecklenburg, newly appointed Virginia Corrections Director Allyn R. Sielaff has proposed sweeping changes at the prison.

Those proposals have been delayed by the state Board of Corrections, setting the stage for a heated political battle between Sielaff, appointed by Gov. Charles S. Robb, and the board, also named by the governor.

Bair served as deputy warden of the Utah prison where he was responsible for the young adult offender center, women's facility and an inmate firefighters' honor program. Virginia corrections spokesmen said Bair has never served as chief of a maximum security prison such as Mecklenburg.

Mecklenburg's former warden, Gary L. Bass was criticized sharply by consultants after the May 31 breakout for poor management techniques at the Southside Virginia facility and for a failure to mingle with corrections officials on the front lines of duty. After Bass was demoted to an administrative job in the corrections department, the prison was run by Sherman Townley, an interim appointee.

Bair, who will take charge of Mecklenburg Jan. 16, said yesterday: "I will run a humane prison. I will be behind the gates every day. You can't run a prison from behind a desk."

Sielaff also filled three other top jobs at Mecklenburg yesterday. New appointees:

Charles E. Thompson, 40, now head of Haynesville Correctional Unit in the Northern Neck area, to be assistant warden for security. Fred W. Greene Jr., 40, superintendent of Nansemond Correctional Unit in Suffolk, to be assistant warden for treatment.

Willie Thorne, 40, a former District of Columbia police officer and 16-year employe of the Virginia department, chief of security.

Bair taught criminology at the University of Utah before joining the corrections department.

Virginia Corrections Department spokesman Jim Jones said Bair's interests include skydiving to watching ballet.