You might call it serendipity in the law library.
Maggie Filler, LAW ’12, was studying in Stanford’s Law Library and thinking about the California prison system when she came across a student study area that was “overflowing with books about prisons.” Someone else was studying the same thing. The nametag on the pile of books read Sara Mayeux ’10.
“I thought, ‘Who is that Sara?’” Filler recalled with amusement. “We have to get together.”
Filler had coffee with Mayeux and found that they both agreed about several controversial prison issues. Many conversations later, the idea for the Stanford Prison Forum was born.
The Stanford Prison Forum is an interdisciplinary student-run workshop supported by a Student Projects for Intellectual Community Enhancement grant. Filler and Mayeux hoped the workshop would provide a place for students interested in issues of incarceration to study the topic in more depth.
“We felt that although we had some classes at the Law School, the regular coursework failed to capture the systemic portion of prisons,” Filler said. “For example, how [they] operate, not just through legal pass-ways, but in terms of the various other systems…that create this massive system in the United States today, in California especially.”
The forum has been running a seminar at San Quentin prison since the beginning of the quarter. Every Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m., 10 Stanford students make the trek to the San Quentin prison to take a class together with 20 inmates who have earned associate degrees under the Prison University Project, a program that provides free higher education to inmates at San Quentin.
Eight graduate students and two undergraduates are in the seminar as both teachers and learners. They take turns leading discussions and listening to their peers. Topics are mainly focused on getting a better feel of the prison system, but also include sessions on family laws and parole policies to immigration and Franz Kafka’s writing.
Students said the classroom in the prison is very similar to what they experienced at Stanford. However, operating within a prison system brings a unique set of difficulties.
Students were required to go through a security clearance months before the class started. Recently, one class was cut short because the inmates had to go back for a head count. At another class, only one inmate showed up because of a prison fight.
That one-on-one interaction with inmates was an eye-opening one for the Stanford students. At one class session, four Stanford students sat down with one San Quentin prisoner and listened to him share how his experience with severe violence and racism at a very young age directly affected his life.
“It was really the only time in my life that I would have that opportunity to sit down and really say ‘tell me your story’,” Filler said. “I feel it was one teacher and four students. He gave us a huge lesson that day and it was just invaluable.”
Filler felt the class provided her with a knowledge base that she could not get by reading casebooks. A particularly meaningful course for her was one about parole policies, where she learned about what was happening “in terms of what the parole boards should consider as opposed to [what] they do consider.”
Eugenia Maluf ’11, one of the two undergraduates in the forum, joined because of her interest in teaching.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “So something that I can take away is that all the stories I heard from people in the class come down to their inability to access education when they were younger, and that has actively contributed to where they are now.”
Filler said that she hoped that the San Quentin participants realized through the program that people outside the system still care about them. She noted that inmates were deeply concerned with the absence of their voice and she wanted them “to come away with the sense that there are people…who take their thoughts and ideas seriously. “
Mayeux emphasized the importance of inmate’s ability to make their opinions about their circumstances known.
“I think especially with prisons it’s so important because they are literally locked up in cages,” she said, adding that the outside world might not have any conception of how the inmates are actually being treated.
Both Filler and Mayeux plan to continue leading the forum, recruiting a new group of students who can offer a different perspective. They also plan to publish writings about life experiences from both Stanford and San Quentin students as a way of expanding the classroom’s dialogue outside the prison.
Maluf commented that engaging in an “honest dialogue” with the inmates enables one to relate to them as human beings.
“When you think about that, it really changes how you [deal] with the criminal system,” she said.