Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

COVID-19 in Carceral Spaces: Indigenous Incarceration and Immigration Detention in Canada and Australia


Kate Motluk
PhD student at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University


Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Kate Motluk. Kate is a PhD student at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University. Prior to returning to academia, Kate worked for several years for Canadian refugee non-profits and remains an active volunteer in this sector. This blog post is based on Kate’s MA Thesis, Containment & COVID-19 in the Settler State: Indigenous Incarceration and Immigration Detention in Canada and Australia.

Australian flag behind wire fence

At a time when social distancing is among the most effective means of preventing the spread of COVID-19, incarcerated people are confined to enclosed, overpopulated spaces. In both Canada and Australia, the pandemic spurred harsh protocols and policies implemented within carceral institutions (such as prisons and immigration detention centres) in an effort to prevent and contain the virus. In 2020 and 2021, I conducted research for my Master’s thesis, drawing on secondary data compiled by the Canadian and Australian government, public health researchers, and oversight bodies, which tracked the implementation of ‘pandemic policies’. My research concluded that the efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 within carceral spaces ultimately did not prevent outbreaks of the virus, but did result in considerable harm to incarcerated populations. I further found that these harms were painfully predictable, as they were located within longstanding settler colonial logics that work to de-humanize ‘others’.

The incarceration of the ‘other’ is on the rise in many places, including Canada and Australia. In Canada, Indigenous peoples accounted for 17.6% of the incarcerated population in 2001; by 2020, that number had risen to over 30%, yet Indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the total general population. The story in Australia is harrowingly similar. While making up 3% of Australia’s total population, Indigenous peoples represent 29% of those incarcerated. Much like the criminal justice systems in Canada and Australia incarcerate Indigenous and other racialized people at alarming rates, the immigration detention system in both countries has been expanding (although these rates have fluctuated considerably). Canada and Australia are known to have particularly harsh immigration detention systems, particularly as both jurisdictions have no limit on how long migrants can be contained, a characteristic known as indefinite detention. Migrants are therefore detained with no known end date, and may remain in detention for years. While immigration detention is an administrative mechanism, and not intended to be punitive, 19% of migrant detainees in Canada are held in facilities intended for a criminal population. Research demonstrates that the immigration detention systems in both Canada and Australia perpetrate human rights violations and cause considerable, lasting harm. Australia is particularly infamous for their use of offshore detention. These similarities, alongside shared histories of colonialism, membership to the Commonwealth, and comparable population sizes, make Canada and Australia a fruitful pairing for a comparative study of COVID-19 in carceral spaces.

The treatment of Indigenous peoples and migrants in Canada and Australia are rooted in settler colonial logics of White supremacy. Indigenous peoples are dispossessed of their land and their rights, often experiencing cycles of trauma and poverty that research demonstrates leads to carceral outcomes. Migrants are admitted to Canada and Australia in part to uphold the project of settler occupation. Their physical presence contributes to the constant re-settling and exertion of colonial control over the territory. Migrants are also typically admitted for their labouring capacities, which is frequently brutally extracted and exploited.

The disproportionate representation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice systems underscores the ways in which carceral containment can be legible as a form of colonial violence. Canada and Australia are both contemporary settler states, founded but also sustained through the subjugation of Indigenous peoples. The project of the settler state has mutated and has grown to encompass numerous forms of domination over racialized, gendered, and disabled bodies, including many migrants. Understanding the containment of ‘others’ as an expression of contemporary colonialism helps elucidate why incarcerated populations have been so maltreated throughout the pandemic. Colonialism, both in the past and the present, has worked to render ‘others’ as less human. By de-humanizing Indigenous peoples, migrants, and incarcerated people more broadly, the Canadian and Australian state have cultivated a society that fails to grapple with the violence rendered by contemporary colonialism, including the violence of state responses to the pandemic.These logics of de-humanization inform both the policies implemented within carceral facilities, but also the broader societal reaction (or lack thereof) to the outcomes of these policies.

It was clear early on to many incarcerated individuals, advocates, and researchers that COVID-19 posed an acute risk to those held in carceral spaces. In addition to the physical architecture of such places, which confine large populations in poorly-ventilated and shared spaces, the population contained within them are known to have generally poorer health (oftentimes the result of social determinants of health that mirror risk factors for incarceration). The incarcerated populations in both Canada and Australia have higher levels of chronic and communicable diseases than the general population, making them more likely to have a severe, or even lethal, outcome if they catch the virus. To make matters even more urgent, health care within carceral facilities has repeatedly been found to be woefully inadequate

In response to COVID-19, carceral facilities in Canada and Australia implemented a range of policies, in particular extreme lockdowns which in some cases resulted in people in prisons and immigration detention facilities experiencing what amounted to solitary confinement. Both jurisdictions suspended in-person visitations, disconnecting incarcerated people from their loved ones and support systems. Lockdowns and visitation restraints often included compromising meaningful access to legal representation and breaching solitary confinement standards such that it amounts to torture. In February, 2022, a 24/7 lockdown at the Leclerc detention centre in Quebec interrupted access to showers, medication, and clean clothing.

An extended lockdown in the summer of 2020 at the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Queensland, resulted in prisoners being kept in their cells continuously for days and interrupted the provision of meals and medicine. Rather than an approach to the pandemic that would protect incarcerated peoples dignity and ensure their basic needs (like food and medicine) were met, Canada and Australia instead doubled-down on a carceral solution, adding new layers of confinement to their imprisonment.

The policies implemented within carceral facilities aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 were ‘successful’ in a limited sense, in that they may have prevented some instances of infection. Many of these policies, however, harmed those within these facilities by barring their access to justice, their access to visitations, expanding the use of solitary confinement, and compromising the delivery of basic needs. Experts were clear that releasing prisoners and detainees was the best way to protect their rights and their health through the pandemic, yet decarceration was rarely implemented.

In addition to the harm done by pandemic policies, COVID-19 found its way into carceral facilities in spite of these measures, and wreaked havoc in its stead. In Canada, over 16,000 prisoners (which may include those held on immigration holds in jails) have been infected with COVID-19. In January, 2022, there were 206 active cases in Victorian prisons, and in New South Wales facilities over 1,000 prisoners and correctional officers tested positive in just one month. Immigration detention facilities have also experienced outbreaks. Across both prisons and detention centres there have been instances of collective action and protests to draw attention to the injustices unfolding within these often secretive spaces, yet the Canadian and Australian state have done little to address their concerns.

There is an active community within Canada and Australia calling for the abolition of prisons and immigration detention. These calls have intensified in the wake of COVID-19, as it was clear early on that those within carceral facilities were at increased risk of worse outcomes from COVID-19. Amongst all of the pain the pandemic has caused, there have been brief moments of hope. In the early months of the pandemic, the custodial population in prisons in Canada fell by an unprecedented 19%. Between March and July of 2020, the number of migrants in detention in Canada fell by a staggering 61%. Recently released statistics appear to indicate that these decarceration efforts were short lived, but they nonetheless offer a crack in the foundations of the carceral state and suggest that mass decarceration is possible.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated numerous inequalities. In Canada and Australia, it has underlined how the lives of those in carceral institutions are apprehended in settler states. The two-year anniversary of identifying cases of COVID-19 in both Canada and Australia has now passed. New variants continue to emerge, yet Canada, Australia, and numerous other countries continue to incarcerate people. Prisons, detention centres, and other carceral institutions inflict considerable, lasting harm and COVID-19 has made them more dangerous than ever. Recognizing the colonial logics that drive the incarceration of Indigenous peoples and migrants in both Canada and Australia is useful as abolitionists determine how best to dismantle them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

K. Motluk. (2022) COVID-19 in Carceral Spaces: Indigenous Incarceration and Immigration Detention in Canada and Australia. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/06/covid-19-carceral-spaces-indigenous-incarceration-and. Accessed on: 24/04/2024


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