Custody and Democracy

Christopher D. Berk

Consider the following vignettes from my research: a clique of middle school students at a boarding school for at-risk youth leveraging adult advice networks to change a controversial dress code policy; mental hospital patients collectively advocating for an increase in food quality on their ward through an institutionally recognized Patients' Administrative Group; a group of inmates forming a labor union to negotiate with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections to improve prison conditions.

What are we to make of claims for recognition among groups excluded from civic life by democratic mandate? When are authoritarian forms of guardianship authorized, and when are they taken to be inconsistent with the aims of a democratic society?

The existing scholarship on democracy and custody doesn’t provide a clear answer. Some, for example, don’t see paramilitary forms of custodial supervision as producing any kind of democratic deficit. Others view the populations mentioned in the vignettes above as democratically excluded, as groups that cannot be assimilated (unreformed, uneducated, or unhealed) without harming the civic identity of the wider demos. Still more appeal to social constructionism and reject the way various scientific discourses draw the line between ward and autonomous citizen. And perusing wider academic literatures on schooling, prisons, and patient care, one gets the impression that no amount of scrutiny seems to make the confusion around the meaning of ward participation evaporate; no amount of heated debate appears to boil it off. 

Most important conceptual difficulties are slow to yield to efforts at clarification. Part of the problem in this instance is a surplus of broad theories and an absence of detailed empirical case studies. There simply aren’t many studies of participation or collective action by wards, and many thinkers are content to assume, rather than investigate, a theory of human flourishing. In this dissertation, however, I suggest an even deeper difficulty. In the cellblocks of Walpole prison, on the wards of Howard Hall, and in the classrooms and cottages of Winterhill, one quickly encounters the limits of lodestone concepts in the wider academic discussion about the character of democratic participation. Concepts like deliberation and representation, inclusion and exclusion, and disability and capability, strain and crack when tasked with mapping the reality of participation within custodial contexts. My wider claim is that the ideal of the ‘self-governing citizen’ shapes our vision of democratic life, largely without our awareness. Doctrines underpinning this ideal which are supposedly derived from nature and reality (about maturity, about criminality, and about rationality) actually reflect much more of dynamic social relationships than we realize.

With generous financial support from the Social Sciences Division, I spent the 2013-14 school year collecting data for the third and final case study in my dissertation, a contemporary boarding school for at-risk youth. Over the year I observed classes and cottages, interviewed students and staff, administered two school-wide surveys on attitudes and social networks, and collected various institutional records. I've also used a portion of the research grant to hire two area high school students as research assistants in the winter. If you’d like to hear more about my dissertation research, feel free to send an email to chrisberk [at] uchicago [dot] edu.