New Schar School Book: Who Should Govern the Incarcerated

A man in a checked shirt looks at the camera.
Christopher Berk’s new book examines the history of governance of incarcerated individuals. Photo by Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government

Assistant professor of political science Christopher Berk’s new book, Democracy in Captivity: Prisoners, Patients, and the Limits of Self-Government (University of California Press), asks the question, “Who should be in charge of those who are in custody, and why?”

Berk examines case studies, including the rise and fall of patient self-government at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., from 1947 to 1965, and the prisoner-organized governance of Massachusetts's Walpole State Prison after a 1973 prison guard strike, only to conclude those initiatives were undermined by the backlash from the custodians to their wards' attempts at self-rule. This backlash took many forms, from the use of restraint chairs and riot gear to more covert measures taken under the guise of "democratic management."

Turning from these case studies to a wider consideration of custody and democracy, Berk explores pathologies that have captured the politics of punishment, with pressing implications for the practice of democracy both inside and outside of custody.

For more on Christopher Berk’s new book, see this page.