Much coverage of the UN’s scrutiny of Ireland’s human rights record, in Geneva this week, focussed on abortion and symphysiotomy. But the 18-member UN Human Rights Committee had a long list of concerns, including the rights of some of the most marginalised people in society – prisoners.
The rights of these 4,000 or so people fall mostly within Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – under which Ireland was examined. This prohibits torture as well as cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.
In Geneva Deirdre Malone, chief executive of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said half of our 14 prisons were regularly overcrowded. The problem is particularly acute in both women's prisons, which were operating at more than 20 per cent overcapacity on 16th June.
In Cork, on 2nd July, some 59 cells, measuring just 7.5sq m, held two or more prisoners. There, the combination of small cells, overcrowding and slopping out amounted to degrading conditions, she said.
On one day last week, five un-convicted 17-year-olds were in St Patrick’s Institution, she said.
And while prison violence is falling – with 758 assaults by prisoners against prisoners and staff last year – it is most prevalent in some of the oldest prisons; in Mountjoy and Castlerea in particular.
Committee chairman, Sir Nigel Rodley, was less than impressed with an answer from Deaglan O'Briain, principal officer at the Department of Justice, who said while a prison building and refurbishment programme was underway, the Irish State had inherited some very old and dilapidated prison stock. While that might have been an acceptable excuse had Ireland gained independence "20 or 30 years ago, it's less so when almost a century ago".
Ms Malone said the State’s failure to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against torture is “highly concerning”. Ireland signed it in 2007. This would make the prison system more transparent , lessening the risk of abuse.
The UN Committee will publish its “concluding observations” on everything on Thursday.