Mary Bosworth

Mary Bosworth and familyPlease tell us a bit about your background.

I was born in Sydney and lived there until I was almost 16 when much to my horror, my family moved to Perth. I finished school at the excitingly (and inexplicably) named Hollywood Senior High, before studying history at the University of Western Australia, where I was also very involved in student politics. I left WA as soon I could, following the well-worn path of Australians to a terrible job in a pub in London. I didn’t last all that long in that line of work, as kicking drunk men out of a pub at closing time was no fun. Instead, I sweet-talked my way into a much better paid temping job on the back of an offer to study the MPhil in Criminology in Cambridge (I seem to recall the agency was called Oxbridge temps).  Nobody seemed to notice my non-existent typing skills. The MPhil led to a PhD and, unexpectedly, to an art historian American husband who I met at Trinity Hall, and with whom I live in Oxford with my two teenage daughters and a black and white cat called Bikkie.

What led you to a career in academia?

Despite the fact I grew up in an academic family (my father (history) and his father (chemistry) before him! My mother is a writer), I did not expect to work in a university. Until an ill-fated work-experience in a hospital pathology department, surrounded by jars of wee, like so many middle-class girls, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. Next, I considered law. But the 6-year duration of the arts-law program seemed excessive; better to finish in 4 years and go traveling I thought. Then after a particularly invigorating 3rd year history option on Foucault and convicts, I discovered there was a whole discipline where you could study the exciting bits of law, without needing the degree: Criminology! I began my academic career at Fordham University, NY as an Assistant Professor of Sociology.  Once again, nobody seemed to notice my lack of sociological knowledge or training; at my interview, the dean simply wanted to discuss the merits of various college choirs.

What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?

I have been interested in incarceration, race and gender ever since I was an undergraduate. My fourth-year history thesis was on a female juvenile detention centre in Perth, called Nyandi, which had closed that year.  When I requested a site visit, the bored custodian gave me some board games used to ‘reform’ the girls, most of whom were indigenous and from the remote North-West which taught them how to shop in supermarkets and plan weekly meals for their families; rehabilitation, clearly, involved adopting white, middle-class feminine ideals. My PhD, on women in prison in England and Wales, found much the same set of beliefs, although focused that time on how the women themselves responded to, and resisted such re-education attempts. Since 2001, I have added citizenship and border control to my work, shifting the site of my research from prisons to immigration detention centres. My concerns with race and gender remain.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a number of inter-related projects, all of which centre on the changing nature of punishment under conditions of border control. Since 2009 I have been conducting research inside many UK immigration removal centres. I also work with colleagues in France, Greece and Italy on detention practices there. In 2019, I began a new study of deportation and immigration transportation in the UK. As ever, this project has a strong empirical component, including participant observation (in Kidlington) of the training of private detainee custody officers in physical restraint techniques to force people onto vans and planes, and later observation of staff deploying these techniques in actual deportations, as well as site visits to holding units at Heathrow and at Dover.  While the fieldwork component has been suspended due to Covid-19, I continue to observe online meetings on the logistics of forced removal, as staff discuss charter flights, ‘failed jobs’ and how to best manage ‘small boats’ from Northern France. 

What is the best thing about living/working in Oxford?

I have always found that one of the best things about living and working in Oxford has been the ease of combining work and family here.  Not only was I from the start terribly fortunate with obtaining nursery places, first at Wolfson College and then at Grandpont, but the Centre for Criminology has always been a great place to be a working parent. We hold our fortnightly seminars early to allow for childcare and talk openly about the challenges of conducting research and teaching alongside raising kids and looking after elderly parents.

What charity do you support and why?

I support a number of different charities but two which I am particularly committed to in Oxford are: Sanctuary Housing, which places refugees and asylum seekers into spare rooms and welcoming families and Oxford Mutual Aid (OMA), which supports a growing number of needy families and individuals right here in our city. Over the break I gathered, wrapped and donated well over 100 presents for OMA to distribute to local children, simply by asking parents I knew to donate unused gifts they’d gathered over the years for birthday parties.