COVID-19 and detention

This webpage sets out the Justice Health Unit's work on Building a sustainable, comprehensive response to COVID-19 in places of detention


The Justice Health Unit has led and collaborated on several initiatives to support the health and human rights of people who are incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prisons and other places of detention are an essential part of a sustainable and comprehensive public health response to COVID-19. On any given day, more than 11 million people are incarcerated globally, and an estimated 30 million people are released back into the community on a yearly basis. Overcrowding, poor ventilation, inadequate sanitation, and substandard access to and quality of health care contribute to an extreme high risk of COVID-19 transmission in these settings. Furthermore, prisons and detention settings concentrate marginalised populations with disproportionately high rates of complex and co-occurring health conditions, placing them at increased risk of severe illness from SARS-2-CoV.

These risks also extend to the wider community because infectious diseases like COVID-19 can easily be transmitted to the community by staff, visitors, and as people are released.

The health and human rights of people held in detention during the pandemic has been an area of focus for the Justice Health Unit. Because people in custody experience high rates of mental illness, self-harm, suicidality, and trauma, they are highly vulnerable to the deleterious mental health impacts of COVID-19 prevention and control measures in custody. Strategies that restrict freedoms and meaningful social interaction, such as facility lockdown, bans on in-person visitation, and isolation, increase psychological distress and adverse outcomes for people in custody, with particularly profound impacts on those with pre-existing mental illness. These are important considerations for COVID-19 responses, which must balance obligations to protect the broader health and human rights of people in custody with the need for restrictive approaches to minimise COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.

In response to these issues, since early 2020, the Justice Health Unit has led and contributed to the following work:

  • an international webinar series
  • a global rapid review of guidance
  • collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO)
  • advocacy
  • publications and media contributions

Links to more information on this work is contained in the sections listed below.

Webinar series

The Justice Health Unit convened global experts for a series of six webinars to answer the question: “How do we build sustainable, comprehensive global responses to COVID-19 in detention settings?”

Webinar topics comprised: global overview, decarceration, rights and accountability, immigration detention, Australasian issues, and data-driven responses.

More information and recordings of all six webinars are available here.

Rapid review

The Justice Health Unit led a global review of guidance to prevent and control COVID-19 in places of detention. The review identified critical next steps for optimising COVID-19 response in these settings.

More information on the rapid review is available here.


Building on the World Health Organization's (WHO's) interim guidance for preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in places of detention, the Justice Health Unit collaborated with WHO and the UK Collaborating Centre for Prison Health to publish a Lancet Public Health commentary advocating for the inclusion of prisons and other places of detention in the global public health response to COVID-19. Read more here.

The Justice Health Unit has also produced a number of other publications advocating for the health and human rights of people in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

See below for a full list of our publications and media contributions.

Publications & media

  • The mental health crisis in Australian prisons (Interview published by The Justice Map, 25 March 2022) URL
  • People in prison still in COVID-19 lockdown (Published in the University of Melbourne's Pursuit, 22 March 2022) URL. The Justice Health Unit website news item on this article is available here.
  • Prisons are communities too: COVID-19 has exposed the urgent need to reform incarceration systems globally (Published in the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit, 30 November 2021) URL
  • A rapid review of early guidance to prevent and control COVID-19 in custodial settings (Published by Health & Justice, 15 October 2021) URL
  • Building a sustainable, comprehensive response to COVID-19 in prisons (Published by the Power to Persuade blog, 22 July 2020) URL
  • Prisons and custodial settings are part of a comprehensive response to COVID-19 (Published in the Lancet Public Health, 1 April 2020) URL
  • COVID-19: A look at the pandemic crisis in foreign prisons Looking back on the situation in Thailand. (Interview published by BBC Thai, 23 May 2021) URL.  The Justice Health Unit website news item on this interview is available here.

The Justice Health Unit website News Item on the following media contributions is here:

  • Kinner SA, in Yeung P. Overcrowded DRC prisons 'ticking time-bomb' for COVID-19 pandemic (Published by Aljazeera, 30 April 2020) URL
  • Indigenous families call for release of vulnerable prisoners during pandemic (Broadcast by ABC Radio National, 30 April 2020)  URL
  • Calls for Australian prisoners to be released as COVID-19 threatens (broadcast by ABC Radio National, 13 April 2020) URL


The following Justice Health Unit (JHU) team members contributed to our work on COVID-19 and detention:


For inquiries and more information, contact Lindsay Pearce