Post by Mary Bosworth, Director, Border Criminologies. Mary is on Twitter @MFBosworth.   

As immigration detention in the UK is once more in the news, I thought I’d share some thoughts from the field.  While I could offer a more searing account of life within IRCs, I thought instead to describe my recent experience of carrying keys during a brief period of research in IRC Harmondsworth in July 2017. The Border Criminologies blog has covered this issue before, yet I think it is worth returning to the uncanny nature of wielding these potent symbols of institutional power, and so I wrote down my thoughts. 

I was in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Terminal 5, administering the MQLD survey with a small research team of 3 doctoral students.  Results from the survey can be found here. We found a lot of problems. The men were highly distressed and the conditions of the IRC were poor. Those issues deserve a separate post.

It had been a few years since I had last used keys in research. In that period, I had turned them down for various reasons.  Once because I felt unsafe; another time because I wanted to talk to staff, and so being escorted by them around the institution was a good way of recruiting research participants; commonly because I base myself in one room in particular and see no need to roam; always because they make me feel uncomfortable.

Most obviously, with a set of keys, researchers can move independently around the facility, increasing their ability to have private conversations with staff and detainees.  It is tempting, under these circumstances, to present these items merely as tools to unlock; they help researchers to open doors.  Yet their institutional function is otherwise, as of course, they remain forever, the means by which people are locked up. Researchers cannot avoid that part of the process. What does that feel like and does it have any bearing on our work?

In practical terms, the security clearance required for research inside IRCs, permits researchers to draw keys.  Nonetheless, before you can be issued with a set of keys in any particular establishment, IRCs require you to undergo ‘key training’ there first.  This process is relatively straightforward.  First you are told how and where to obtain your key. Then an officer from the security department shows you how to lock and unlock doors. Different keys work in different locks.  No single set of keys, I have been told, open all the doors; although that seems implausible to me.

Some institutions issue a token which corresponds to a particular set of keys; as you leave you join the officers in handing in the keys at the gate and are given the token in return. When you return the next day, you swap the token for the keys, and so on.

In others, technology is rather more developed. These places have ‘key locks’ that are activated by fingerprints. Still others barely use keys at all anymore, preferring, like universities and hospitals, to use swipe cards.

At Harmondsworth, I was reminded, detainees must not look at, touch or hold keys. There, as I have been before in similar terms, I was told: ‘Some detainees, need only to see a key once, to be able to replicate it.  If images of locks circulated people outside could create keys to open them.’ These are risky items of power, such claims suggest; they are dangerous.

I feel a certain giddiness when I obtain my set. I imagine inadvertently leaving a door open, allowing people to leave. I can see myself mistakenly dropping the keys on the ground; failing to notice they have been unhooked from the chain; having my whole belt fall off (with my trousers attached). 

The officer runs through other scenarios. The key could break in a lock (if it did we had to wait right there); the big ring on the chain itself, could snap, (if it did, we had to bring it in to be immediately repaired). I might try to leave the building without handing them in (an alarm would sound) 

And then, that is that. Key training was over, and we were allowed to enter the main building.

This is when the decision to carry keys becomes most uncomfortable.  Despite my attempts to cover with my shirt, the leather bag in which they must always be placed, securely attached to a belt, as I enter and depart, I have to pull out the chain, insert the key, turn the lock, open the door, and then lock it behind me; not forgetting to pull it firmly to check it is indeed closed tight.

My habitual lack of direction becomes pronounced.  Although British custodial institutions follow similar internal designs, I always take some time to orient myself within them. Where does this gate open into again?

Do I enter the institution in the main entrance, walking into a large courtyard full of men, who now see I have keys, or do I try a side entrance, where perhaps my arrival could be more discreet?

In Harmondsworth, there are two choices: one set of massive gates, which do not just have a lock but a bar you must draw to the side like entering a castle. And one human size door into part of the institution where I did not need to be.

So, the big gate it was: First reach up, put the big key in the lock, turn it, then slide the metal bolt, and push open the other door.  Only open it a little way because it’s heavy. Then, once you’ve closed it, slide the bolt back, turn the key, and lock it.

And then do it all over again.

Stretch up (I’m short), unlock, slide bolt, open door, close door, slide bolt, stretch up, lock, jiggle to make sure it’s really closed. Walk through the dim ‘sterile’ space, then: Stretch up, unlock, slide bolt, open door, close door, slide bolt, stretch up, lock, jiggle to make sure it’s really closed. Then unlock and lock. This second one is temperamental. The bolt doesn’t slide in easily, and until it fits, the key can’t turn.  So much for being discreet.

The other set of doors are more manageable in scale (unlock, lock, walk to the next door, unlock, lock). They are regular sized metal doors, with a ‘sterile space’ between them from which you can either enter directly onto a housing unit, or enter the main courtyard of so-called ‘Phase 2’. But I was administering surveys in Phase 1, so going through this human-size door added additional entry points that had to be navigated, call buttons that had to be pressed to be buzzed through, hallways that had to be covered.

There was no way around it: the keys were obvious, and my arrival and departure visible.  I was not just unlocking; I was locking up too.

Why didn’t we open all the doors? Why doesn’t someone else?

Carrying keys is convenient. It also, perhaps unexpectedly, may assist researchers become invisible within the institution. This time at any rate, it felt as though their jiggling presence at my side accorded me some legitimacy with staff and detainees alike. While I remain ambivalent about carrying them, I appreciate their symbolic if painful reminder of quite simple but profound questions about liberty, rights and belonging. Tools designed to lock people up should be uncomfortable to carry.  The question that arises, then, is whether and how academic research might unlock alternative views and practices? It is this issue, that I hope Border Criminologies will focus upon in more detail this year, as we seek to contribute to new imaginings, processes and policies.  We have a lot of evidence. Now we need to change the dialogue.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bosworth, M. (2017) From the Field: Locking and Unlocking Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date])