Participatory Democracy

Excerpts from On Prison Democracy: The Politics of Participation in a Maximum Security Prison, an essay by Christopher D. Berk (Critical Inquiry, Winter 2018). March 14, 1973 the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Walpole entered into a protracted strike by its prison officers. Commissioner John Boone decided “Instead of sending in the state police he turned over the management of the prison to the newly formed and elected prisoners’ union (the Walpole chapter of the National Prisoner Reform Association [NPRA]), a skeleton crew of officers and trainees from other institutions, and civilian observers.” “At the time, Walpole was the most violent prison in Massachusetts, perhaps even the most violent in the country.” “The inmates were now running the asylum, so to speak.” “Between 15 March and 19 May, the NPRA was the central force governing the inmates at Walpole. There were no murders and little violence, and the prisoners ran the kitchen and foundry, maintained security, deliberated over policy and action, and negotiated with the prison administration.” To paraphrase Hillary Clinton – “What happened?” Again, Berk writes: “This account usually takes one of two forms, either a call to increase law and order within prisons or a push to reallocate goods and services to the task of treatment. In other words, inmate participation is understood as a symptom of a failed treatment or control regimen. Call this the conventional liberal narrative. However, an alternative account emerges from a close reading of the Walpole episode. In this narrative Walpole is an experiment in participatory democracy and community control. Call this less familiar view the radical narrative.” In a book entitled Not A Crime To Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America (The New Press 2017) Peter Edelman describes the poverty pipeline to prison that has America leading incarcerations in the world (up through 2017). The first part of the book statistically and factually recounts the various techniques involved with the U.S. system of debtor’s prisons (“Ferguson Is Everywhere”). These include money bail (both private as well as government sourced), criminalization of mental illness, benefit programs and child support, education (“Go Directly To Jail”, see recent Florida handcuffing of a 7 year old), housing ordinances (This blog already wrote about nuisance properties) and homelessness. The second part (Ending Poverty) deals with contemporary efforts to shut off the prison pipeline through not only legal strategies and actions, but also community based initiatives. He narrates actualities of the following programs: Community Action Program Tulsa (OK), Chicago’s Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone, Brooklyn’s Community Solutions and The Brownsville Partnership, The New Haven (CT) Moms Partnership, The Alameda Health Consortium (Alameda County CA), and the Youth Policy Institute of Los Angeles. Most of these are centered around supplementing the care and education of pre-school through high school youth through the interaction of their parent or guardian. These in turn receive some tangible benefit for their involvement as well as job training, psychological and economic counseling, including hands on aid in housing, legal concerns etc. The organization’s originating emphasis may be youth, or housing, or physical/psychological health issues brought on by the stress of poverty, but they all treat the concerns holistically – through addressing all the individual’s various interlocking components perpetuating poverty. More importantly, they address this through some full time/part time staff, (some of whom previously were recipients of the organization’s care) as well as a large number of those for whom the service is directed acting on their own behalf providing service to their peers (facilitating, counseling, educating, mentoring). Analysis finds this to be the correlation linking Edelman’s Ending Poverty with Berk’s liberal narrative “call to increase law and order within prisons or a push to reallocate goods and services to the task of treatment” and its alternative account of “an experiment in participatory democracy and community control.”

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One Response to “Participatory Democracy”

  1. mathias sager Says:

    Great example. Thanks for sharing.

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