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

Prisoners, mental patients, and children are widely understood to be rightfully excluded from participating in democratic politics. Just as fundamental as this assumption about the proper borders of civil society is the belief that a liberal state can legitimately and forcibly include these populations into the regime through institutions like prisons, asylums, and schools. The result is a persistent boundary problem for theorists of aggregative and deliberative democracy. For these schools of thought, custodial populations lack sociality, rationality, or maturity — all of which are conceptually necessary to decide, deliberate, or participate in the polity. Wrapped in this ‘exclusion thesis’ is the simple but significant distortion that the boundaries of competence can be determined prior to political contest. I demonstrate that this assumption neither stands to reason, nor produces a normatively appealing model of democratic politics. It’s unappealing because it creates and reinforces a categorical division between an arena for democratic, self-governing citizens and a domain where paternalism is necessary, appropriate, and effective. The result is that the design of institutions like prisons is insulated from democratic critique.

My book manuscript argues for flipping the traditionally asked question about competence. Instead of asking about entry and exit from the category ‘competent citizen’ (under what conditions is someone rightfully labeled mad, what legal or moral criteria ought to be used to assess maturity), we should ask what it means to be a self-governing individual in a society where individuals are constantly entering and exiting the category of competence. A society where well over 90 percent of those currently in prison will be released; where children can be tried as adults; where cognitive disability at some point in the life course is an expectation, not an exception.

An overlooked dimension of the rich, troubled intellectual history of participatory democracy is the extension of the idea of community control to custodial institutions like prisons and hospitals. Those participatory experiments, I suggest, highlight the complex role organizations can play in making — and re-making — civic competence.

The chapters that form the core of the manuscript are based on two case studies, both the product of extensive archival research. The first case draws on a unique archive of notes written by civilian observers, newspaper articles, various accounts of outside witnesses, and inmate oral histories to reconstruct the events inside of a maximum security prison in Walpole, Massachusetts during a crisis in the spring of 1973. When prison officers left their posts during a strike, something unexpected took place. Inmates formed a labor union and ran the facility themselves for nearly three months. The central focus of my second case is the rise and fall of ‘self-government’ groups in St. Elizabeths Hospital at the mid-century. Using a variety of primary sources, I focus on a violent ward for the criminally insane, Howard Hall, and analyze a series of novel democratic and authoritarian organizational innovations that arose in response to patient collective action at the mid-century.

These detailed micro histories inform a larger, macro narrative about custody and democracy. I conclude by advocating for responsive custodial institutions. At the highest level of generality, a responsive custodial relationship is one that builds civic capacity, treats limits to participation as provisional, and experiments with mechanisms for soliciting voice.

This project offers two distinctive contributions to scholarship in the social sciences. First, it intervenes in a key debate in democratic theory about the proper borders of civil society. I demonstrate how particular institutional forms, such as the prison, mediate the relationship between the democratic ideal of self-government and competence, and why existing normative theories of democracy are out of step with this reality. Second, my work connects scholarship on democratic institutional design to work on custody and competence, to the benefit of both. I show how legal reformers and political philosophers alike have compelling reasons to turn their attention to the organizational structure, and democratic design, of custodial institutions.

Published Articles (Refereed)

  • 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.” Revise and resubmit at Political Theory.
  • “Childhood, development, and the troubled foundations of Miller v. Alabama.” Revise and resubmit at Law & Social Inquiry.

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

  • “Custody 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.