People held in detention settings are some of society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged. COVID-19 does not discriminate, nor should our response to it. Just as the government’s response in the community seeks to prioritise protecting those most at risk, so should its response within detention settings.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST 

INQUEST continues to advise and support bereaved families, at a time when essential post death investigations and inquests are subject to disruption and delay as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Alongside this, our team are monitoring the situation as it unfolds and adapting our services and advice to families whose loved ones die in custody and detention settings – from both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related deaths.

INQUEST and Women in Prison have brought together a powerful coalition of signatories calling on government to immediately reduce the number of people in prison, young offender institutions, secure training centres and immigration detention settings. Add your support here.

Read the letter

Find out more about how INQUEST is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

People detained in prisons, police custody, immigration detention centres or mental health and learning disability settings must not be forgotten during this coronavirus pandemic. Unlike people in the community, people in detention are totally dependent on the state for their safety. They are living in close proximity and cannot choose to self-isolate. Budget cuts across the public sector alongside long-term issues have already resulted in poor conditions and levels of care, intensifying pre-existing risks to safety and life.

In prisons and other detention settings, current conditions could constitute a danger to life, in particular, unsanitary conditions such as a lack of access to articles needed for personal hygiene, and a lack of appropriate ventilation. On top of this, the impact of more restrictive regimes and practices, suspension of family visits and the anxiety around the virus will impact on people’s mental and physical health.

The government must act decisively to urgently reduce the number of people in custody and step up plans to protect and treat people held in all detention settings from the direct and indirect effects of the Coronavirus. Government must be open and transparent about infection rates, conditions and deaths in custody and detention as the situation unfolds. 

In March 2020, INQUEST published a briefing on COVID-19: Protecting people in places of custody and detention. The briefing set out our immediate concerns around the pandemic in relation to our areas of expertise:

The right to life

Under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the government owes a duty of care to people in custody and must work to protect the lives of staff and detainees from any foreseeable danger, such as COVID-19. This obligation must remain at the forefront of institutions responses.

Inquests, investigations and post death processes

Deaths that occur as a direct result of the virus, indirectly through limited access to healthcare, or in detention in ways unconnected to the virus, must be subject to full transparency in post death investigations.

Prisons and immigration detention centres

People held in close proximity and unsanitary conditions poses a risk to the health and wellbeing of detainees, staff and the wider public. More restricted regimes, alongside suspension of family visits heightens isolation and anxiety and the risk of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm. Practical measures must be enacted to rapidly decrease populations across some detention settings.

Mental health and learning disability settings

As the NHS and care providers are likely to face unprecedented pressures, it is imperative that the human rights of detained patients are protected. Patients must be kept safe and options should be explored to ensure people are released back into the community with the necessary financial, practical and emotional support in place to allow for a safe transition.

Visiting arrangements and contact with relatives and friends

Efforts to stem the spread of the virus within institutions will result in even longer periods of time in cells and isolation for people who are already cut off from loved ones and the wider community. Those in detention must be able to retain contact with each other, and with friends and family via the use of phones and other technology.

Access to justice for those in detention

At a time of reduced scrutiny of closed institutions access to lawyers and advice services are a vital lifeline. There needs to be increased access to confidential phone calls and enabling non state agencies to use for example video conferencing facilities.



STATEMENT: INQUEST’s initial response to COVID-19, 17 March 2020

BRIEFING: COVID-19: Protecting people in places of custody and detention, 23 March 2020

MEDIA RELEASE: INQUEST briefing on COVID-19: Protecting people in places of custody and detention, 25 March 2020

NEWS: Over 100 signatories call on government to immediately reduce number of people in detention settings, 27 March 2020

NEWS: How INQUEST is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 April 2020

BLOG: A note of solidarity with families during COVID-19, 1 April 2020

RESOURCES: COVID-19: Other sources of support, 3 April 2020

NEWS: COVID-19: deaths of frontline workers must receive proper scrutiny, May 2020

NEWS: Chief Coroners guidance will stymie and limit investigations into COVID-19 deaths of frontline workers, May 2020

NEWS: Transparency on deaths in mental health and learning disability settings, May 2020

NEWS: Government responds to coalitions call to #Release2SaveLives, June 2020

SUBMISSION: INQUEST submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry on The government’s response to COVID-19: human rights implicationsJuly 2020


Government considers releasing prisoners, Inside time, 27 March 2020

27 prisoners test positive for Covid-19 in 14 different prisons, Press Association, 27 March 2020

Coronavirus: Prison concern forces ministers to look for more cell space, The Times, 28 March 2020 

Coronavirus: Race to find new prisons or risk early release of prisoners due to COVID-19, Express, 29 March 2020

Dip in UK prison population, Inside time, 30 March 2020

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Covid-19 does not discriminate, nor should our response to it, The Justice Gap, 31 March 2020

NHS staff coronavirus inquests told not to look at PPE shortages, Guardian 29 April 2020

Coronavirus and legal rights: When is an inquest needed?, Leigh Day, 4 May 2020 

Coronavirus: Almost 100,000 people demand inquiry into NHS deaths and PPE shortages, Mirror, 9 May 2020

Alarm over five suicides in six days at prisons in England and Wales, Guardian, May 2020

Coronavirus: Data on deaths in mental health and learning disability units will now be published, NHS announced, Independent, May 2020

Deaths of detained mental health patients double due to COVID-19, Health Service Journal, May 2020

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Bristol prisoner died while awaiting trial during coronavirus lockdown, May 2020

Chief Coroner guidance 'could frustrate investigations' into frontline workers' deaths from COVID-19, Channel 4 News May 2020

Harsh realities, People in detention have been let down by the state during the pandemic. Deborah Coles for Fabian Review, September 2020

Investigation after women 18, died at Styal prison in Cheshire, Guardian, December 2020