Sir Stephen Tumim
(Filed: 10/12/2003)

Sir Stephen Tumim, who died on Monday aged 73 while on holiday in the Galapagos, was a barrister specialising in divorce and later a cheerful, light-sentencing circuit judge; but he gained an infinitely higher profile as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales from 1987 to 1995.

An avuncular bon vivant, invariably sporting a bow tie and half-moon specs, Tumim might have seemed more at home dispensing good-natured gossip at the Garrick or the Beefsteak. Yet he approached his job as prisons inspector with a seriousness and vigour that surprised and occasionally - not least when he directed gentle admonitions at the Home Office - irritated the government. His frank and hard-hitting reports often made for discomfiting reading, and with his friendliness to journalists and gift for a soundbite, he brought the issue of prison reform to the fore as never before in modern times.

His first assault was on slopping out, the unhealthy tradition of the bucket in the corner that had endured since the Victorian era, without anyone believing that it could or should be brought to an end. Tumim called it a "nasty, humiliating nonsense, degrading not only for prisoners but for prison officers"; his report on sanitation was the first step towards having lavatories installed in cells.

Tumim next launched into the enforced idleness (yobs lying on their bunks all day) in many young offenders' institutions. At Hull he wrote about the "grim environment", "filthy corridors" and "damaged childen picking up further criminal habits". His overriding principle was that prisons should become re-educative and useful: he regretted that he was never able to introduce the idea of the industrial prison, which he had seen in Germany. He repeatedly pointed out that the only punishment of a prisoner laid down by law was a period of deprivation of liberty, by removal from the community.

As the father of two daughters profoundly deaf since birth, and himself a former president of the Mental Health Tribunal, Tumim brought to the job first-hand experience with the disadvantaged. He also had a firm commitment to good race relations after his experiences on the bench dealing with problems between the Caribbean population and white residents of north London.

As interested in literature and the arts as he had been in his work in the courts, Tumim was at pains to avoid the convoluted and pompous style of so many lawyers when writing his reports. In clear, robust English he was able to describe the rats and feral cats in the grounds of Winson Green, Birmingham, the traces of excrement on the walls of the psychiatric wing at Brixton jail in south London, the "dustbin" that was Dartmoor, and the "culture of self-destruction " at Armley Prison, Leeds, where five young men had killed themselves within the space of two years.

After the Strangeways riot in 1990, the most serious prison disturbance in England and Wales in the 20th century, Tumim was brought into Lord Woolf's inquiry to help with the drawing of general lessons; the Woolf report echoed many of Tumim's concerns, recommending that prisoners should spend less time in pointless activity and more time being trained or educated or performing useful work.

Stephen Tumim was born on August 15 1930, the younger son of Joseph Tumim, CBE, a bookish barrister who was sometime Clerk of Assize on the Oxford Circuit, and his wife Renee, who died of septicaemia after pricking herself with a knitting needle when Stephen was 10. The name Tumim is Spanish-Jewish; the family came to England in the 14th century.

After his mother's death, few demands were made of Stephen and as an adolescent he was free to wander around Oxford's bookshops to his heart's content. He went to St Edward's School and then as a scholar to Worcester College, Oxford, where he read History before switching to Law. He was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1955 and embarked on a career that he later described as "happily quiet and restrained and mediocre".

During 20 years as a barrister he practised in family law and landlord and tenant, with a sideline representing pop stars in dispute with their management. His health dissuaded him from applying for Silk, and after a stint as a Recorder he went on to the circuit bench in 1978, serving as Judge of Willesden County Court from 1980 until 1987.

When he was appointed as chief prisons' inspector by Douglas Hurd in 1987, Tumim was quite unknown to the public at large, and was chosen (on the recommendation of Sir Brian Cubbon, then Permanent Under Secretary) as a judge who was not too Right-wing or too settled in his ways.

After a year in office, Tumim produced a report on the general state of the prison service, which he described as "creaking under severe stress", but not yet at breaking point. He praised governors and staff for their ability to cope with problems and "maintain a tolerable level of existence for inmates", but criticised "the pervasive slovenliness and squalor in many establishments, dirty windows and paintwork, dirty lavatories, graffiti, litter and gloomy lighting".

He established a rapport with Hurd, who went out of his way to praise Tumim's enthusiasm, and with his successors as Home Secretary; David Waddington, Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke. But relations were less good with Michael Howard. Tumim admitted that they had "differing views" and, in one interview, suggested that Howard was "seeking popular support by showing that prisoners were being strongly punished". He said that Margaret Thatcher was liberal by contrast: "She was very much in favour of prisons being made clean and held nothing like the strong views that are the fashion now."

Tumim was not reappointed when his second term came to an end. He later became Principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, but resigned after two years amid claims that he had ruffled the feathers of some dons. His departure caused a sit-in by students, with whom he had been popular.

He continued to run the Arthur Koestler award for prisoners' art - a show of his favourite paintings was entitled "The Judge's Hang" - and remained a keen collector. He did not drive, having fallen into a sulk after failing his test, and he admitted to being a less than good host unless he managed to pretend to himself that he was a guest.

He was chairman of the National Deaf Children's Society from 1974 to 1979, chairman of the Friends of the Tate Gallery from 1983 to 1990, and then president of the Royal Literary Fund. His publications included Great Legal Disasters (1983), Great Legal Fiascos (1985), and Crime and Punishment (1997).

Stephen Tumim married, in 1962, Winifred Borthwick, then a teacher at a secondary modern school and later chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, and of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. She survives him with their three daughters, one a painter on Orkney, the others professional designers.