I write on the law, politics, and political theory of punishment, and my central research areas are political theory and public law.

My advisor at the University of Chicago was Bernard Harcourt, and the members of my dissertation committee also included Andrew Abbott, Cathy Cohen, and Robert Gooding-Williams.

Book Manuscript 

Democracy in Captivity: Essays on the political situation of prisoners, patients, and others in custody

Democratic politics and the imperatives of custody are typically set against one another. On the one hand, those we put into schools, mental hospitals, and prisons are custodial populations, they are individuals understood to be insufficiently self-governing and, consequently, disqualified from full participation in civic life. They lack maturity (the child), lack rationality (the mad), or lack sociality (the criminal) — all of which are intuitively necessary to decide, deliberate, or participate in the polity.

On the other, we’re told, the intuitions and institutions democracies use to respond to law-breaking, illness, and immaturity often make matters worse. Public opinion driven policy can hollow out civic participation, distort the electorate, and undermine core democratic values. Worse, the decentralized character of democracy is a key, albeit indirect, cause of increasingly punitive public policies that are divorced from any reasonable penological or therapeutic purpose. Given these effects, many have called for the separation, or general insulation, of custodial institutions from direct community control.

This book defends an alternative view. I argue these two assumptions neither stand to reason, nor produce a normatively appealing model of democratic politics. Instead of thinking about those in custody as incapable of political voice, we should instead see competence as a shifting and fluid limit with which institutions should respond, experiment, and adapt. Through two case studies — a prison rebellion and a patients federation — I demonstrate how relaxing the connection between competence and democratic self-government exposes the potentially virtuous interaction of values, organizational politics, and knowledge of human capability.

Published Articles (Refereed)

  • “Childhood, development, and the troubled foundations of Miller v. Alabama.” Accepted at Law & Social Inquiry.
  • Berk, Christopher D. 2018. “On Prison Democracy: The Politics of Participation in a Maximum Security Prison.” Critical Inquiry 44, no. 2: 275-302. [Print available here.]

Under Review

  • “Democracy’s internal borders.”

Published Articles (Invited)

  • Berk, Christopher D. 2010. “Investment Talk: Comments on the Use of the Language of Investment in Prison Reform Advocacy.” Carceral Notebooks 6: 115-129. [Print available here.]

Works in Progress

  • “Prisons and Community Control.” Working paper.
  • “Mad Politics: Voice on an Asylum Ward.” Working paper.
  • “Governing Children: Resistance in a Boarding School for At-Risk Youth.” Working paper.
  • “Participatory Politics and Equality in the Digital Age.” (with Cathy Cohen). In preparation.