Sir Stephen Tumim

Reforming Chief Inspector of Prisons

Stephen Tumim, judge and inspector of prisons: born Oxford 15 August 1930; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1955; Chairman, National Deaf Children's Society 1974-79; Recorder of the Crown Court 1977-78; Circuit Judge 1978-96; Judge, Willesden County Court 1980-87; Chairman, Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983-90; Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales 1987-95; President, Royal Literary Fund 1990-2003; Chairman, Koestler Award Trust 1993-2003; High Steward of Wallingford 1995-2001; Kt 1996; Principal, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1996-98; married 1962 Winifred Borthwick (three daughters); died Hood Island, Galapagos Islands 8 December 2003.

For eight years, from 1987 to 1995, the name of Judge Stephen Tumim was invariably linked with any mention of prisons or imprisonment. His genial, white-haired, somewhat avuncular figure - half-moon glasses perched on the end of his nose; invariably wearing a brightly coloured bow tie - was instantly recognisable to millions who saw him on television or in newspapers. From him came a stream of outspoken reports about disgraceful treatment of and conditions for prisoners. Many correspondents approached him for comment and were never disappointed. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons was a person to be reckoned with because he so clearly cared about them.

In many ways he was an unlikely choice for the post, because he had previously only had indirect contact with imprisonment. He was born in 1930 in Oxford, where his father, Joseph Tumim, was a Clerk of Assize of the Oxford Circuit. Oxford and the law were to feature throughout his life, witness his attendance at St Edward's School followed by Worcester College, where he was a Scholar, reading History, then changing to Law. Inevitably the law became his profession and he was called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 1955, becoming a Bencher in 1990.

Tumim practised divorce law and also specialised in litigation cases involving the art world, demonstrating an abiding interest in literature and painting in particular (he was a collector both of books and pictures) that was to remain with him all his life. In 1977 he was appointed a Recorder, and in 1978 a Circuit Judge. From 1980 to 1987 he was a judge of the Willesden County Court, from where Douglas Hurd selected him to take over as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. He once said that, after his marriage, this was the most significant turning point in his life.

When he succeeded Sir James Hennessy, the reformed Inspectorate of Prisons had only been in existence for six years. An earlier 1835-77 version had been had been absorbed into the Prison Commission, ushering in 104 years of self-regulation. Public unease about this had led the Government to appoint a commission under Mr Justice May to inquire into the Prison Department of the Home Office, which the Commission had become in 1962. One of his recommendations was that independent inspection should be restored, adding that the Chief Inspector should not come from the Prison Service. Stephen Tumim followed a probation officer and a diplomat.

His predecessors had issued a number of damning reports about what they found, but these had not hit the headlines and their content remained largely unknown outside the Home Office. Tumim felt, at once, that this was wrong. He was reporting to the public about their prisons. They needed to be told what was or was not happening in their name. It was the Chief Inspector's job to do that, exercising his independence and telling things as they were, not as people might like them to be.

This approach may have discomforted some ministers and officials, but it at once attracted the media. Far from being a dull subject, about which there was nothing to say, it was clear that prisons were a public issue not least because there was so much wrong in the way that they were being run.

All this came to a head in April 1990 when the worst riots in British penal history took place in Strangeways prison, Manchester, and some 20 others. The present Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, was appointed to inquire into their cause, assisted by Tumim. Together they produced one of the great penal documents of all time, whose analysis and recommendations - many of which were incorporated into a subsequent White Paper - could, if acted upon, have transformed the penal system. It remains a permanent tribute to both its authors.

Arising from this, Tumim championed the ending of a particularly obnoxious custom, "slopping out", or the emptying of used chamber pots every morning. Lavatories may have been provided in every cell in Pentonville and other prisons, when they were built from 1843 onwards, but, for almost 100 years, they had been removed. Their restoration, ahead of promised time, was due almost entirely to his persistence.

Tumim appreciated that young, adult males formed the largest part of the prison population. Many of them were virtually uneducated, having truanted or been expelled from school, totally lacking in employment skills and coming from chaotic and dysfunctional backgrounds. Many were also mentally disordered. If they, and indeed all other prisoners, were to be helped to live useful and law-abiding lives, they needed to be provided with and stimulated by full, purposeful and active days, not left locked up all day in their cells.

Of all the needs of prisoners, he felt that education was the greatest. However he appreciated the difficulties in trying to persuade those who had opted out at school to re-enter a learning environment. From his own love of the arts he felt passionately that they provided the vital key. Every artistic production was an achievement, resulting in heightened self-esteem. Self-esteem was an essential for making further progress. Therefore, for the remainder of his life, he championed the cause of providing arts opportunities in prisons, chairing the Koestler Trust and its annual show of prisoners' work from 1993 onwards. He also promoted a large number of operatic and theatrical productions, all of which were appreciated as much by the public who saw them as the prisoners who took part.

Whenever he went on inspections, he tended to meet with individuals or groups of prisoners, rather than the staff. In order to report on their treatment and conditions he needed to know what they thought of them. He turned this interest into a major sphere of activity when he retired as Chief Inspector, at the end of the maximum eight-year term in 1995, becoming a trustee or patron of an enormous number of organisations concerned with many aspects of imprisonment. It was typical of him that his last public engagement, before he died, was to preside over the annual general meeting of Unlock, a charity founded by ex-prisoners to help prisoners on release.

Oxford was to feature once more in his life, this time for a somewhat disappointing reason. In 1996 he was appointed Principal of St Edmund Hall, being forced to leave in 1998 following a vote of no confidence from the senior members. As when inspecting prisons, he had perhaps shown more interest in the prisoners, but it was a sad way for him to have to leave.

An immensely affable man, Stephen Tumim was always happy when in the company of others, such as when lunching at his beloved Garrick Club. He was rightly proud of the many honorary doctorates he was awarded by various universities, but drew even more pleasure from his historic title of High Steward of Wallingford.

On his retirement from the post of Chief Inspector, after a less than happy time working under Michael Howard as opposed to his predecessors, there was something of a public outcry that his public service had not been officially recognised. Clearly the authorities listened because he was knighted in 1996. It was no more than he deserved.

In 1962 he married Winifred Borthwick, with whom he had three daughters, two of whom are profoundly deaf. Stephen and Winifred will be remembered for their lifelong work for many organisations involved with the treatment of and care for the deaf - he was for five years Chairman of the National Deaf Children's Society, she for seven Chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, then later Chair of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations.

They were on holiday together in the Galapagos when he died.

David Ramsbotham

Stephen Tumim's friends will remember above all his wry, snuffly, almost badger-like wit and attitude to life, his modesty and above all his honesty. This was not just personal, it formed part of the qualities enjoyed by the best representatives of "Our Crowd", the upper-class Jews who have contributed so much to British life over the past couple of centuries through their recognition that financial security also involved responsibility to society.

These qualities were most obviously displayed in his term as Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, but they came out also in his work as Chairman of Friends of the Tate. It was typical that he thoroughly enjoyed the trick played on him at a time when threats from the IRA forced him out of his lovely house on Hammersmith Mall and required him to be guarded by Special Branch. They had employed a graduate art historian as one of his protection squad. While wandering round an exhibition at the Tate the officer was able gently to correct some of Stephen's opinions, a rebuke which a more pretentious and self-important figure would have found difficult to accept.

Stephen's only failure was as Master of St Edmund Hall, a job he greatly prized after his stint as Chief Inspector. His early departure from the college was barely if at all his fault. His uncondescending friendliness and involvement with their affairs had greatly endeared him to the undergraduates. Unfortunately this attitude, as well as attempts to change the way the college was run, put him into conflict with a narrow-minded section of the governing body and he was forced to resign.

The length of time the college then took to find a successor spoke volumes as to the un-wisdom of their behaviour.

Nicholas Faith

Around 1990 people began to tell me I should paint Stephen Tumim and to tell him the same thing. So, when Stephen entered my life by telephone early in 1992, we laughed and had lunch at the Garrick to arrange things. I decided to pose him in front of a large oil I'd done, Laugh at the bottom of a well, which has a descending, diminishing and claustrophobic structure I associated with prisons. Against this, in contrast, Stephen rises like a question mark.

At the time he was on an IRA hitlist. He had had nothing to do with Ireland or its prisons and said it was because his surname happened to begin with "T" and Ts had been selected at random as targets. He had to be accompanied in public by at least two policemen. I asked Stephen to wear a particular turquoise cardigan for the portrait, the one colour in cardigans not already in his wardrobe, and he and his armed guard then searched the gentlemen's outfitters of the nation. While Stephen sat in my studio upstairs, various jolly policemen sat downstairs. Even the dogs got used to it.

For the next five years I spent a day in prison with Stephen every May judging the Koestler Awards for paintings by prisoners. The inmates were so obviously delighted to see him and treated him as one of themselves.

Stephen Tumim was a remarkable mixture of Firbankian humour and deep commitment to his personal campaign for people's rights. Art-gallery private views will sadly lack the laughing warrior inside the teddy bear.

Maggi Hambling

Comments