Morris E. Lasker, a U.S. District Court judge who was best known as a staunch advocate for prisoners’ rights and for cleaning up the New York city jails in the 1970s and 1980s, died of cancer at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge in the early morning hours of Dec. 25. He was 92 and had been a summer resident of the Vineyard since 1949.

Monnie, as he was known by friends and family, and his wife Toy, first came to the Island when they rented the house of Nelson and Olga Bryant on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. In 1967 they bought a home in Chilmark overlooking Menemsha Pond where they vacationed every year, most recently during the past Thanksgiving vacation.

Morris Edward Lasker was born in Hartsdale, N.Y. on July 17, 1917. He attended the Horace Mann School in New York city, graduated in 1938 from Harvard College (Phi Beta Kappa) and from the Yale School of Law in 1941.

He served as a staff attorney for the U.S. Senate National Defense Investigating Committee (the so-called Truman Committee, which investigated military contracts for the federal government) until he joined the Air Force in 1942 after the outbreak of World War II. He served in the United States and France, beginning as a private and continuing until his discharge in 1946 as a major.

In 1943 he was stationed for a week in Salt Lake City, Utah. On the train ride to Salt Lake he became friends with a fellow traveler who had purchased the last copy of a magazine he wanted to read. He newest friend suggested that he go on a double-date with the younger sister of his date . . . and the rest was history. Exactly 90 days later Monnie and Toy were married. Last April they celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.

He began his law career in 1946 in private practice with the New York city firm of Battle, Fowler, Levy & Neaman, which later became Battle, Fowler, Stokes & Kheel. He remained as a partner in the firm until 1968 when at age 51, he became a U.S. District judge for the southern district of New York. He was nominated by Sen. Robert Kennedy, shortly before the senator was assassinated, and appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

From 1946 to 1952, Judge Lasker lived in White Plains, N.Y., where he ran unsuccessfully for election to Congress as a Democrat in 1950. From 1952 to 1994 he lived in Chappaqua, N.Y., where he was active in public affairs. Prior to his appointment to the federal bench, he served as town attorney and justice of the peace for the town of New Castle, and was a member of the board of education for the Chappaqua school district.

In his 25 years as a U.S. District judge in Manhattan he presided over numerous high-profile cases, including the Ivan Boesky Wall Street insider trading scandal and the appeals of three former Black Panthers in a case that involved the ambush slaying of two Harlem police officers.

But he was best known for his rulings in the southern district of New York that brought an end to the horrific, squalid conditions in the New York city jails, including Rikers Island and the infamous Tombs, a detention center for men in Lower Manhattan where cells designed for 925 were occupied by 2,000 men who slept on concrete floors without blankets amid roaches and mice. In 1974 after repeated warnings and orders to improve conditions that went unanswered by the city, Judge Lasker ordered the Tombs closed. Over the next nine years it was rebuilt at a cost of more than $40 million.

“Reformer of the Tombs,” a man in the news story in The New York Times called him.

“The public, through its government, has not assumed its responsibility to provide a decent environment within jail walls,” he said at the time. Subsequently, in 1975, there was a 17-hour revolt by the inmates at Rikers Island over the conditions there. At the insistence of the inmates, Judge Lasker was awakened in the middle of the night by the commissioner of corrections and asked to help quell the jail riot. State police came to his suburban Westchester home to take him by motorcade to Rikers Island. By his mere presence, stature and demeanor, he was acknowledged as critical in diffusing the situation and securing the release of hostages.

Other cases he handled involved such disparate figures as George P. Metesky, the so-called Mad Bomber, Clifford Irving, author of the spurious Howard Hughes autobiography, the famous Hunt brothers, and the notorious ensemble Monty Python. A story about the Monty Python case in The New Yorker in 1976 reported:

“The case in New York of Monty Python v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., was, for several reasons, a diverting one. Besides the novelty of television performers suing to block themselves from being shown on nationwide television there was the satisfying sight of high officials of a huge corporation being dragged to the bar of justice by a pack of clowns. ‘I am not sitting here just because I am amused,’ the judge, Morris E. Lasker, remarked at one point, ‘although I am amused.’ ”

In 1970 he ordered the city of New York jail to release Angela Davis from solitary confinement. In 1977 he ruled in favor of Groucho Marx in a lawsuit brought to enforce his rights against Oui magazine. He struck down a city of New York ordinance requiring the licensing of stores with “peep show” booths in them, on the grounds that it was an impermissible prior restraint on free speech and violated rights protected under the First Amendment. And in another case, he ruled that the elections related to the New York city Board of Estimate must adhere to the constitutional mandate of one-person-one-vote.

In 1989 he was awarded the Learned Hand Medal of the Federal Bar Council and the Edward Weinfeld Award of the New York Counties Lawyers Association. At the time the award council said: “Judge Lasker challenged members of the bar, as lawyers and citizens, to be mindful of the less fortunate members of society.”

He also served as a member of the executive committee of the Bar Association of the City of New York, on the visiting committees to the philosophy and classics department at Harvard, as trustee of the Vera Institute for Justice in New York, and as honorary chairman of the criminal justice research program at New York University Law School.

In 1983 he took senior status, but continued to sit as a full-time judge for many years after that.

He moved to Cambridge in 1994 and sat by special designation as a U.S. district judge for Massachusetts in Boston. In 2003 he received an award from the Federal Bar Association of Massachusetts. He continued to sit on the court with an active case load until September of 2007 at the age of 90. After that he continued to serve, successfully mediating cases for other active judges on the court until a few months ago.

His interests outside of the law included music, which was a true love, politics and current events, European and American history, literature of every sort, and gardening — especially his beautiful roses. He sang in the Alumni Harvard Glee Club until he was 85, and he played classical piano throughout his life.

He is survived by his beloved wife Toy; and by his four children, Harry M. Lasker 3rd of Cambridge and West Tisbury, David E. Lasker of Madison, Wisc., Kristen Lasker of Cambridge, and Timothy W. Lasker of Chilmark; as well as nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

On Sunday, Dec. 27 there was a small graveside service for family members at Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Chilmark. In the spring of 2010 a memorial service will be held at the Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston.

In lieu of flowers the family asks that contributions be made to an organization that helps people less fortunate than yourself.