'Common Good Atlanta' screens at the Morehouse Human Rights Film Festival

“Common Good Atlanta: Breaking Down the Walls of Mass Incarceration” will be screened at Morehouse College Bank of America Auditorium Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. (Hal Jacobs)

When Sarah Higinbotham wanted to teach a literature class in a prison, there were no opportunities in Georgia prisons. She and Bill Taft decided to change that, forming the nonprofit organization Common Good Atlanta, a grassroots program that offers higher education courses to incarcerated people.

A new documentary, “Common Good Atlanta: Breaking Down the Walls of Mass Incarceration,” is being screened at the annual Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival on Sept. 21. The documentary director Hal Jacobs and Kara Walker, executive director of the Morehouse Festival, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the impact of education for the incarcerated and other festival features.

Interview highlights:

How two enterprising teachers started a movement for education access:

“A friend of mine, Bill Taft, joined Sarah Higinbotham in organizing [the program] and going into the prisons, and I was just amazed about what they were doing and how they were just doing it by themselves, basically,” recounted Jacobs. “Most of all, I was impressed by Sarah Higinbotham’s time and energy and joy and passion that she put into it. And as soon as I met her, I realized that was my story — the fact that one woman just decided to go into a prison and teach one literature class, and now, 12 years later, over 70 faculty have joined her just on a voluntary basis, and over 700 incarcerated students have been touched by her and the other instructors.”

“It’s amazing because it really does break open so many of the barriers that exist. The teaching relationship, the one-on-one instruction that they’re getting from these faculty, I mean, world-renowned faculty, is just remarkable. They’re getting the kind of education that we would all wish to get, basically,” said Jacobs. 

A reported 0.5% recidivism rate of Common Good graduates:

“There’s always a large gasp from the audience when they see that number, and it’s not something that Common Good really brags about, because they want the emphasis to be on the power of the liberal arts to rewire our brains, so to speak. They don’t want it to become a statistic. But it’s very true that, across the nation, these education programs are having that kind of impact on recidivism rates,” Jacobs said.

He added, “Now that some of the incarcerated students are returning to the community, they are joining the board of directors. So they’re having a large influence on the direction of the program, and that’s another highlight of the program, is the fact that it’s continuing the connection that students have once they leave, so that they become part of this Common Good Atlanta community as well.”

The Morehouse Human Rights Film Festival’s event opportunities and mission:

“We invite filmmakers from all over the world to submit their films and come to Morehouse each year in the fall to screen those films in front of our faculty and students, as well as members of the Atlanta community,” Walker explained. “The festival will showcase 110 films … We have added a student night, so on the very first night of the festival, Tuesday, Sept. 20, we will showcase all-student films. We will also have several panel discussions this year, including two student panel discussions and a panel discussion that will feature directors, writers, producers. We even have a panel discussion on documentary filmmaking sponsored by the Southern Documentary Fund.”

“Our goals for the festival … are to educate and expand awareness of social justice issues to generate conversation and dialogue around civil and human rights, and to inspire innovative and creative new approaches to social change. That’s the call to action — to get involved in helping to alleviate many of the social justice issues or human rights issues that plague us all,” said Walker.

“Common Good Atlanta: Breaking Down the Walls of Mass Incarceration” will screen online from Sept. 20-30 here, and in-person at Morehouse College Bank of America Auditorium on Sept. 21. Tickets for the in-person screening are available here.

More on the in-person and virtual screenings and events of the Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival 2022 can be found at morehousehumanrightsfilmfestival.com