Tonight: 'Solidarity In Solitary Confinement' film to be discussed at Pitt

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What we have here … is failure to communicate.

With that in mind, the Thomas Merton Center tonight presents “Solidarity In Solitary Confinement,” a film about a small group of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in California who inspired 30,000 fellow prisoners to set aside their gang rivalries and racism to join them in a hunger strike for justice.

The event, organized by American Friends Service Committee of PA, will feature University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Jules Lobel, who will discuss the film and its topic, then participate in a question-and-answer session.

“Professor Lobel is well-known nationally, maybe more than he’s known here in Pittsburgh,” said Diane McMahon, managing director of Thomas Merton Center. “He also happens to be the lead attorney for these prisoners at Pelican Bay, who went on a hunger strike because of the practice of putting prisoners in solitary confinement for things that had little to do with their behavior. It was more because they were associated with gangs.”

As Post-Gazette writer Rich Lord noted in a story last year, some of the Pelican Bay prisoners were held in solitary confinement until they would “debrief” officials on gang activities.

“Because some refuse to debrief, hold out because of fear of retaliation against their families, or have no information, hundreds have been in solitary for more than a decade,” Mr. Lord wrote.

“Jules Lobel is one of our cornerstone sustainers of the center,” Ms. McMahon said. “He’s joining us tonight as a way to promote the center and he offered to do this at no cost. He thought it would put some focus on this practice of solitary confinement which is very torturous.”

Mr. Lobel, who is also president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a legal complaint on the prisoners’ behalf.

And while the film addresses the controversy at Pelican Bay in California, Pennsylvania has its share: 5 percent of the state’s prison population is in solitary confinement.

“So we also will have some local people who are working on helping prisoners with local campaigns and objectives,” Ms. McMahon said.

This is what the Thomas Merton Center does. With more than 40 years of experience, the Garfield-based group of activists aims to raise awareness and educate people on topics of peace and social justice.

“We have four focus areas,” Ms. McMahon said. “Peace, nonviolence, end the wars. Economic justice. Environmental justice. And human rights, with a heavy focus on prisoner treatment.

“We believe these are issues that we had better talk about. If this can accomplish that in even a little bit of a way, then we’ve made progress.”

There is the challenge, of course, of preaching to the choir. While it’s important to educate and motivate like-minded people, the center also operates with the hope of reaching others. You don’t have to check your conservative credentials at the door tonight.

“If we ever hope for any kind of change for all these issues — and there’s so many things — we’re going to have to attract a broader public,” Ms. McMahon said. “It can’t be just the regular liberals and progressives. We’re going to have to put the message in a way so people understand that if we don’t join together around certain issues, we’re not going to have any substantial change.

“We like to have more complex conversations about things. There needs to be that ability to do that, without judging people.”

The setting for tonight’s free event — the University of Pittsburgh Law School in Oakland — lends itself to that desire.

“We’d like to get students while they’re at the point in their lives where they’re more open to hearing different sides,” Ms. McMahon said.

The event is from 7 to 9 p.m. at 3900 Forbes Ave., Room 113 in the law school.

Dan Majors:

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