This is far more fitting than the educators might imagine. Kafka knew of prisons (exact and ephemeral). He was also an excellent lawyer and knew his way around a court room, though he did not participate in many cases. In both "The Trial" and "The Penal Colony", the justice meted was both brutal and not just.
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Stanford students lead classes in San Quentin prison
Trying to get a better understanding of California prisons, 10 Stanford students are teaching and learning with a group of 20 inmates at San Quentin. They're covering topics ranging from the history and culture of the state's prisons to the relevance of Franz Kafka's writings in the context of America's penal system.
Stanford Law School student Maggie Filler begins a Sunday class at San Quentin by asking inmates: 'What are some reasons for incarcerating people?'
BY ADAM GORLICK
When Philip Senegal considers the 21 years and seven months he's served in San Quentin since his murder conviction, he can't help but think his time behind bars will one day come to an end. Although his parole was recently denied, he's banking on another shot at freedom in seven years – the next time he'll be allowed to make his case to the parole board.
So he had a keen interest in the class he was taking on a recent Sunday – a discussion led by Stanford students on parole policies. Eager to talk about how state and federal judges have weighed in on the issue, he also wanted the students to walk away with an understanding of his personal experience.
"There are a lot of intricacies to how the system works," said Senegal, who is 43. "And you don't understand them just by studying things on the outside. If you don't come inside and see what's going on, then you're just uninformed."
Getting that inside perspective is at the heart of the Stanford Prison Forum, an interdisciplinary workshop organized by Stanford Law School students Sara Mayeux and Maggie Filler and supported by the Criminal Justice Center and the vice provost for graduate education.
"We need more tools to understand prisons and issues like recidivism than just studying the legal system," Filler said. "In law school, you look at things from the legal perspective – which is whether someone is guilty or not. I'm more interested in what happens once someone is in prison, and learning directly from people who are serving time makes sense. But once they're in, they're invisible for the most part."
Stanford doctoral student Ronmel Navas, left, and San Quentin inmate Philip Senegal listen to a discussion about parole rights. Senegal, who has been in prison since his murder conviction more than 21 years ago, recently had his parole denied.
In a classroom inside a modular building next to San Quentin's sprawling exercise yard, 10 Stanford students pursuing degrees in law, psychology, history and modern thought and literature have spent their Sunday afternoons this quarter studying, debating and learning with 20 inmates.
"We wanted to bring in perspectives from a range of different disciplines so students could see how criminal justice might intersect with their fields," said Mayeux, who is a doctoral student in history as well as a law student. "People who are interested in studying prisons usually get boxed in as sociologists or criminologists, and there's not a lot of thought about how disciplines like history and English can offer an important dimension when you're talking about prisons."
Led by different Stanford students each week, the group has covered topics ranging from the history and culture of California's prisons to the relevance of Franz Kafka's writings in the context of America's penal system. The inmates prepare for the lessons by reading handouts and thinking about questions posed on the syllabus.