The Minister for Health, Micheál Martin, has said the grim and unsatisfactory conditions for prisoners in the Central Mental Hospital are a sad indictment of Irish society.

The Minister was speaking after a tour of the Victorian building which houses the majority of prisoners at the facility in Dundrum, County Dublin.

This is the first time a Minister for Health has visited the Central Mental Hospital since it opened in 1850. Mr Martin was invited to view plans for two new units for long and short-term prisoners.

The Minister said he found the physical conditions in the main building grim and unsatisfactory. It was built in 1850 and still used for over 50 prisoners.

He said there was an obligation on the Government to provide funding to put plans in place for the optimal care of prisoners in the future. Funding options for the new development could include a public-private partnership.

Mr Martin said it was clear to him that the current conditions cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

Despite a recent coat of paint, most cells are small, with little natural light. The prisoners have no sinks or bathroom facilities and have to slop out every morning. The conditions have been criticised by the European Union's committee on the Prevention of Torture.

The Assistant CEO of the East Coast Area Health Board, Martin Gallagher, said the hospital could take two prison transfers a week, but should be taking six. Staff shortages have closed 4 wards at a time when the prison population has increased by 50%.