The global COVID-19 pandemic starkly revealed the underlying structural harms and produced vulnerabilities for people living in closed congregate settings like immigration detention centres (‘IDCs’) and residential aged care facilities (‘RACFs’). This article compares the Australian legal regimes that regulate IDCs and RACFs, conceptualising both as authorising and enabling sites of control, confinement and social isolation. We argue that specific COVID-19 measures have intensified a logic of social exclusion and disposability towards people in IDCs and RACFs. Through comparing recent COVID-19 litigation, the article explores the possibilities and limitations of engaging legal strategies to achieve social reform and legal accountability within both sites of confinement. Ultimately, we suggest that such COVID-19 litigation has the greatest possibility of advancing social justice when it is embedded in a broader politics of de-incarceration and abolition oriented towards political inclusion, public health and building more equitable and just communities.