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BACKGROUND: There are reports of outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons in many countries. Responses to date have been highly variable and it is not clear whether public health guidance has been informed by the best available evidence. We conducted a systematic review to synthesise the evidence on outbreaks of highly contagious diseases in prison. METHODS: We searched seven electronic databases for peer-reviewed articles and official reports published between 1 January 2000 and 28 July 2020. We included quantitative primary research that reported an outbreak of a given contagious disease in a correctional facility and examined the effects of interventions. We excluded studies that did not provide detail on interventions. We synthesised common themes using the Synthesis Without Meta-analysis (SWiM) guideline, identified gaps in the literature and critically appraised the effectiveness of various containment approaches. RESULTS: We identified 28 relevant studies. Investigations were all based in high-income countries and documented outbreaks of tuberculosis, influenza (types A and B), varicella, measles, mumps, adenovirus and COVID-19. Several themes were common to these reports, including the public health implications of infectious disease outbreaks in prison, and the role of interagency collaboration, health communication, screening for contagious diseases, restriction, isolation and quarantine, contact tracing, immunisation programmes, epidemiological surveillance and prison-specific guidelines in addressing any outbreaks. DISCUSSION: Prisons are high-risk settings for the transmission of contagious diseases and there are considerable challenges in managing outbreaks in them. A public health approach to managing COVID-19 in prisons is required. PROSPERO REGISTRATION NUMBER: CRD42020178827.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ Glob Health

Publication Date





COVID-19, avian influenza, diseases, disorders, infections, injuries, prevention strategies, prisons, public health, systematic review, Adolescent, Adult, Aged, COVID-19, Communicable Disease Control, Communicable Diseases, Contact Tracing, Disease Outbreaks, Female, Health Communication, Humans, Male, Mass Screening, Middle Aged, Prisons, Public Health, SARS-CoV-2, Young Adult