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Common Good Atlanta: Bringing higher education into prisons is featured in documentary

The film focuses on the grassroots program Common Good Atlanta and its journey to taking higher education courses in prisons.

ATLANTA — After years of filming, a new documentary highlighting mass incarceration and prison education is screening Wednesday in Atlanta.  

“Breaking Down the Walls of Incarceration: Common Good Atlanta” focuses on the grassroots program Common Good Atlanta and its journey to taking higher education courses into prisons.

The program started in 2008 when at-the-time Ph.D. student Sarah Higinbotham wanted to volunteer to teach at local prisons. It started off with just a couple of lessons, but very quickly, CGA expanded to where current and previously incarcerated individuals can now receive college credit.

“We teach writing, literature, U.S. history, philosophy and art theory with a heavy emphasis throughout all of that on critical thinking and writing skills. These are the same courses that are taught inside colleges across Georgia, across the United States, and they are accredited by Bard College in New York,” CGA Co-founder Higinbotham said.

In 2010, filmmaker Hal Jacobs heard about CGA from co-founder Bill Taft and from then on he was hooked. He soon had the idea to document the efforts of CGA and show the impact that services like these have on individuals. 

“I think there is a need to tell the stories of people in our community. People to me who are heroes - people who just don't talk the talk, but are walking the walk with their lives. And that's what Sarah has done,” he said.

Credit: Common Good Atlanta
Common Good Atlanta recipient

Over the past 13 years, CGA has come to partner with multiple professors and universities including Emory University, Georgia Tech, Morehouse College and many more. They have alumni and multiple success stories where CGA has made a path for a better future outside of prison.

Currently, CGA volunteers teach inside three men’s prisons and one woman’s prison. They have a waitlist of people wanting to get into the program. However, Higinbotham wants people to know at CGA is there to help and to be a community for people who are, or were, incarcerated.

“We'll help you with your statements, with letters of recommendation and with other hurdles that a lot of people face when they're applying to colleges. And then we also do a lot of enrichment activities. We go hiking together. We have a running and a cycling group. We do road races together, we play music together, we have picnics. So it's a lot of close friendships that were forged inside prison between faculty and students who continue to bring out the best in each other,” she said. 

Both Jacobs and Higinbotham are excited to tell the world their stories and the stories of those incarcerated, and they hope the audience will take as much away as they put in. 

“When you watch this brilliant documentary and you hear these people's stories, you hear their voices, you hear their deep wells of humanity. It can't be us and them anymore. It's there's a sense of deep and profound connection of community that comes out of a broader definition of citizenship,” Higinbotham said.

Jacobs echoed Higinbotham, adding that their work is helping form a more united community -- especially for those who are working to change and wanting to contribute.

“One thing is to remove the stigma of what people in prison are like and realizing that they're coming back into our communities and that we can't just shut them away," Jacobs said. "We need them to become part of the community and become leaders in the community."

The documentary “Breaking Down the Walls of Incarceration: Common Good Atlanta” airs Wednesday at the Plaza Theater in Atlanta at 7 p.m.

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