Tens of thousands of commercial sex workers in China are administratively detained each year in female re-education through labor (RTL) centres for moral education and vocational training. Recent increases in syphilis and heterosexual HIV make tailored HIV prevention efforts for sex workers increasingly important in many regions of China. However, RTL centres focused on detaining commercial sex workers have not traditionally been linked to sexually transmitted infections (STI)/HIV programmes. The stigma of being incarcerated and selling sex complicates STI/HIV prevention for these women. Incarcerated sex workers represent a particularly marginalised HIV risk group that has been excluded from domestic and international HIV programmes to date. Although several laws and administrative decrees provide a legal mandate for sex worker STI/HIV testing, treatment and rights, there is still substantial variation in how laws are implemented. Creating devoted medical services and legal aid for incarcerated sex workers is important in curbing the spread of heterosexual HIV and other STIs in China. Recent legal and social developments suggest that China’s RTL system will be transformed in the near future, gaining momentum for reform that could improve the sexual and human rights of incarcerated sex workers.