The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) has called for a well-resourced, transparent, fair and expeditious repatriation system to allow prisoners abroad serve the remainder of their sentences in Ireland.

The charity said restrictions imposed in prisons during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to "considerable hardship".

It is estimated that at any one time, there are up to 1,200 Irish people in prison overseas in approximately 30 countries around the world.

A significant majority are in prisons in the UK, with relatively high numbers in the USA, Australia and throughout Europe.

They can apply to transfer to an Irish prison to serve the remainder of their sentence, providing the country they are sentenced in is a signatory to the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners.

Early last year, the ICPO circulated 1,100 questionnaires to Irish prisoners abroad for the first time.

They generated 114 anonymous responses.

Respondents reported experiencing mental health difficulties, feelings of isolation and having little time outside of their cell.

This was exacerbated by Covid-19.

Other difficulties and adverse impacts from the pandemic included lack of visits, 23-hour lockdown in their cells, concern for their own health in a confined setting, delays in legal hearings and inability to access educational and offender behaviour courses.

The majority of those who replied said their primary concern arising from Covid-19 was not for their own health but for the welfare of their loved ones at home.

The ICPO said that while access to video-calls should continue to be permitted when restrictions are lifted, it should not be used as a replacement for physical visits from family and friends.

Established 35 years ago, the ICPO is funded by the Irish Catholic Bishop's Conference, the Department of Foreign Affairs through the Emigrant Support Programme and by the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

Prior to Covid-19, it operated a prison visiting programme in Britain and elsewhere.

The charity continues to offer prisoners and families information on repatriation and deportation.

The policy of the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners, which is based on humanitarian considerations, is to overcome the difficulties posed for prisoners serving sentences in foreign jurisdictions, such as absence of contact with relatives and differences in languages and culture.

Government policy is that whenever possible, prisoners should be permitted to serve their sentences close to their families, according to the Department of Justice.

Last year, there were no inward transfers to the State and five prisoners were transferred out of the State.

Since the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Act came into operation in November 1995, 154 prisoners have been transferred here from abroad and 194 prisoners transferred out according to a report by Minister Helen McEntee, which was published published last year.

In 2016, relevant Supreme Court judgments raised the issue of how best to adapt and administer a foreign sentence that contains features not found in Irish sentences.

To address this, the Government approved the General Scheme of the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Bill in 2019 to amend the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Acts 1995 and 1997.

Council Framework Decision 2008/909/JHA replaces the Convention for transfers between EU Member States.

Transposition of this will be done through the Criminal Justice (Mutual Recognition of Custodial Sentences) Bill, which was published in July this year.

The Minister for Justice intends to seek Government approval to incorporate the amendments required to the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Act 1995 in the Criminal Justice (Mutual Recognition of Custodial Sentences) Bill 2021.

The Department said the minister also intends to progress the Bill as soon as possible after the summer recess.