The Irish Penal Reform Trust has urged the Government to urgently address defects in the prison system identified in a recent report from the UN Human Rights Council.
Speaking on RTÉ's This Week, Executive Director Deirdre Malone said it was time for the Government to act on basic minimum standards to meet Ireland's international human rights obligations.
In its report, the UN criticised persistent overcrowding and the lack of in-cell sanitation resulting in 300 prisoners still being forced to slop out.
It highlighted the failure to fully segregate remand prisoners from convicted prisoners, and to separate juvenile and adult prisoners.
It also raised concerns about the continuing high level of inter-prisoner violence.
Ms Malone, who attended the UN Human Rights Committee hearing earlier this month, said that it was clear at the Committee hearing that chairperson Nigel Rodley was surprised that a number of basic and minimum standards were still not being met by a first world country that holds a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
She said that given that Ireland was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, it had a reputational interest in ensuring that not only did the Government talk the talk but that it would also walk the walk.
Ms Malone said there was nothing new in the issues highlighted by the UN Committee and that it was time for the Government to improve living conditions for detainees as a matter of urgency.
She noted the overuse of imprisonment, with 89% of those committed to prison last year given sentences of less than 12 months.
8,000 were committed to prison for failing to pay fines, and that a quarter of those were women.
She said the UN Committee had been very clear that in no case should imprisonment be used as a method of enforcing a contractual obligation, and had urged the state to fully implement the Fines Payment and Recovery Act.
She said the legislation was of no use to anyone if it could not be availed of by the people on the ground who needed it.
Ms Malone also called for the appointment of a Prisoners Ombudsman as part of a strategy to provide a fully independent mechanism for dealing with prisoner complaints.
She noted that the Prison Officers’ Association had also called for a Prisoner Ombudsman and said that this would be the ideal model to ensure transparency and accountability.
She said the Government hopes to see juvenile and adult prisoners fully segregated by the end of this year, and acknowledged there was a policy recognition that slopping out needs to be eliminated.
However, she said policy commitments had been seen before, and what was now needed was action to end degrading practices as soon as possible.