Even though it's a 55-minute commute from Midway to Draper, where he works, "It's worth it, because Midway is so beautiful." So says 50-year-old Orson Lane McCotter, who put his roots down with his family in Utah on Jan. 2 - after moving 27 times.

And so what if he has never lived here before?McCotter's new job is director of institutional operations for Utah's Department of Corrections - which makes him No. 2 man to Gary DeLand, corrections director, and No. 1 man at Point of the Mountain. But he says the decision to move from New Mexico to Utah pre-dated his job offer.

"I have a long professional association with Gary DeLand, and we've always talked about corrections problems, but I had no idea that there was a job in Utah when we picked Midway."

A few months ago McCotter's oldest son was killed in an accident in Puerto Rico while serving an LDS mission. It was the first tragedy McCotter's family has suffered, and they are still recovering from it. "We're not bitter. It was a tragedy, and one you don't easily get over, but if he had to die we are honored that it happened while he was in missionary service for his church."

They wanted to bury their son in the state where they would retire, and they had always thought that Utah, which they had come to love through a family tradition of BYU attendance, would be that place. So they buried him in Midway and then bought a home intended for their retirement, without realizing that they would be back sooner than they intended.

Then Gary DeLand told McCotter that Ken Shulsen intended to step down, creating a job opening in the Utah prison system. Even though McCotter intended to stay on as director of the New Mexico Department of Corrections, a job he had held since 1987, he jumped at the chance.

Gary DeLand announced in November that he intends to leave his post eventually and return to private consulting, but no one yet knows when that will be. In February, DeLand was asked if McCotter is his hand-picked successor. He denies that, saying that although McCotter would make a good director, the decision is the governor's alone.

When McCotter was asked the same question - about the rumors that he had taken the job as a stepping stone to DeLand's position - McCotter laughed and said, "That's all they are - rumors!" He said he enjoys working with DeLand, has great respect for him and hopes DeLand will be persuaded to stay on longer - at least through Gov. Norm Bangerter's final term in office and even beyond.

DeLand, he admits, has been controversial, especially for spending too much time on training - "well, you can't spend too much time on training, but all prison directors tend to be controversial, especially if they try to accomplish important things - and if I take his place I'll be controversial too. I was controversial in New Mexico. I was controversial in Texas."

Even though that sounds forceful, McCotter, whose background includes the military and law enforcement as well as corrections, belies stereotype. Engaging and down-to-earth in conversation, his manner and style evoke no thought of controversy.

At least not yet. He seems more like an LDS bishop or a social worker than a corrections chief with a heavy hand.

In fact, his claim is that the successful corrections official needs to be "a father confessor, a social worker and a hard-core security guy - all rolled into one - and you've got to play that role whenever you're in the prison."

Even though his master's degree from Sam Houston State University was in criminology and corrections, he never intended a corrections career. "I got into corrections by accident when the Army told me I was going to go into it. But now I like it better than law enforcement."

McCotter made his military mark, in part through two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he earned the Vietnam Medal of Honor with silver palms.

Then, in 1971, the military pointed him toward corrections by making him deputy director of training at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the armed forces' only maximum security prison. A decade later, he was back at Fort Leavenworth as the warden.

In 1984 he left the military to accept a position in Texas as deputy director of one of the nation's largest prison systems. By 1985 he was the executive director with responsibility for 38,000 inmates confined in 27 separate facilities.

Because of gang influence on a massive scale, the Texas prisons were in terrible shape. McCotter designed and implemented a security system that reduced prison violence by 75 percent and moved the system from the worst prison violence rate in the nation to one of the national leaders in fewest incidents of inmate violence per capita.

McCotter ranks this experience as among the most memorable of his long career. "We went in there with SWAT teams and took 10,000 weapons out of that prison." In 1987 he was the subject of a profile piece by Ed Bradley on CBS' "60 Minutes."

After his success in Texas, he moved on to a new challenge as head of the New Mexico prison system, which put him back at ground zero. Because of numerous problems, New Mexico was operating under a federal consent decree when McCotter arrived.

Within two years the system received full accreditation from the American Correctional Association, mostly because McCotter had designed a security system that reduced prison escapes by 70 percent and incidents of violence by 60 percent.

Now in Utah, McCotter is ready for any challenge - including lawsuits sponsored by the ACLU. "The ACLU is active everywhere, so that's not new to me." He is convinced, however, that one of the ACLU's principal criticisms about double-bunking at the prison is a non-issue.

"Double-bunking is certainly not unconstitutional at all - as long as people are not crammed into a small cell. We have to look at totality of conditions, and there is nothing wrong with double-bunking. I'd much prefer to run a single-cell prison. New Mexico is all single-celling, because double-celling is prohibited there under federal court order. A single-cell prison is easier to run, but 90 percent of prisons in the country have double-celling."

Despite the criticisms directed at the Utah prison system, McCotter thinks it is in remarkably good shape. "I think here in Utah we're so much better off than most places that I'm almost amazed." McCotter thinks it essential to keep the system professional with intensive training.

Training makes it possible to be prepared for any eventuality, "such as a riot or a hostage crisis - just as the military is prepared to cope with a war if they have to do that."

But McCotter considers prison work primarily "people work" and has a major interest in rehabilitation. Operating prisons creates an opportunity to try to help people change, because 90 percent to 95 percent of inmates will eventually return to society, and so we have to prepare them to do that. There are only 1 percent to 2 percent who are hardcore criminals who cannot be helped."

McCotter cannot say that the prison is drug-free, "because drugs get into the prisons the same way they get into the rest of society, but we have very good shakedown procedures and an excellent SWAT team, and therefore very few drugs or weapons make their way into our system."

McCotter thinks there are exciting things happening in the Utah prison system. "Every place I've been has been a disaster when I got there except Utah. This is really refreshing for me."

As a way of proving his sincerity, he invited me to call him at any time if I have "a couple of hours to kill," and he'll drop everything and take me into any part of the prison.

"Coming in unannounced is the best way to see it as it is. We have two extreme interpretations of prison conditions: those who think that we treat prisoners inhumanely and those who think we maintain a country-club atmosphere. The fact is that neither is true."

McCotter's desk is clearly where the buck stops. Behind it a sign says, "I'm the most responsible one in this establishment - whenever anything goes wrong I'm responsible."

He's new, but it's obvious that there will be no 28th move for McCotter - no matter what prison problems he encounters, or what his professional future holds, because "Utah is the McCotters' home."