A conversation with Christopher Havens, Prison Mathematics Project

The following is an email conversation with Christopher Havens, an incarcerated individual who discovered his love for mathematics while in prison, and now conducts research in number theory and also directs the Prison Mathematics Project. See here and here for articles about him, and also his paper in the journal Research in Number Theory.

Hi Christopher, it’s an honor to chat with you for Inclusion/Exclusion. Let’s just start by introducing yourself to our audience — who are you, what do you do, and why?

Hello An! Truly, the honor is mine, and thanks for having me! An intro … Well, I’m Christopher Havens, a mathematician, a prisoner and the director of the Prison Mathematics Project. My story is a bit unique because my past and my present have such dramatic contrast. Without going too deep into my story, I lived a pretty dark past, landed in prison and I ended up finding mathematics. Through my study and exploration of mathematics I began experiencing profound changes in my heart and mind. Then, for the next 10 years I have been living a life of transformation … of Justice and love. I know I’m skipping over so much, but a nice synopsis of the story can be found here.

What I do is an especially interesting topic! I research in number theory in my free time, and recently had my second paper accepted for publication at a professional journal. Another was recently submitted and more on the way. However, my contributions to mathematics are nothing special. What I mean is, that my work in Number theory is no different than the work of any other mathematician in their own field. I’ve never made any “ground breaking” discoveries, and I’m not trying to be “the best”. Indeed, I do math because it’s in my heart, and an endeavor of beauty … But my real work lies in a huge effort to understanding the role of mathematics in self identity and desistance from crime.

My work revolves around the popularization and diversification of mathematics to an incredibly unlikely demographic. In the Prison Mathematics Project Inc, we work with prisoners who are actively involved in the self-studies of mathematics by providing mentorship. The mentorship process helps our participants overcome their conceptual snags, as well as teaching them about the community and culture of mathematics.

Why? I do this because as I’ve found, mathematics, the community and its culture have an incredible impact on the human heart. Rehabilitation and Justice occur in the most impactful ways … and I suppose that I wanted to share what I experienced with all of the others out there grabbing at straws for a life that might exist, if only they knew where to look! On top of that, I aim to change the culture of prisons.. A tall order, I know. But hell, more and more prisoners are striving to become “anomalous!, which really is quite wonderful!! Imagine what prisons would look like if there were more anomalies doing amazing things than the garden variety “convict”?

Very cool! And congratulations on your second paper! I have so many follow up questions, but let’s keep going about yourself. I’m curious to learn more about how you understand the role of mathematics in self-identity and desistance from crime. Could you tell us more about your philosophy?

This is not very easy to describe but I guess I should begin at the point of my life where my own identity was challenged and where my path of desistance began.

I was in the hole, which is another word for solitary confinement. Picture living in a small concrete room where an incredibly bright fluorescent light stays on the entire time. Time has no meaning with no windows to the outside, and no remarkable features to mark the passage of time. In fact, there were no remarkable features anywhere … even the bed is made from a simple concrete slab. Adding to the atmosphere were the screams of prisoners whose minds were … less than healthy. Some spend hours entertaining themselves by taunting and trying to make others crack under the pressure. No human being is visible from inside the cells in the hole — save for the silhouette of a face on the other side of a narrow window — and so there are men who would kick the walls, sometimes for several hours at a time.

I like to define hell as being the n’th layer of rock bottom as n increases without bounds … Sometimes it felt like on the other side of that concrete wall, I would reach that infinite limit. My way of passing the days was to play Sudoku and to exercise and when noises outside from my door could be heard, I’d walk over and look at the only external stimulus. Almost always it was a guard or a nurse … but on occasion, there was a gentleman who would walk by, passing a manila envelope under the doors of a couple other prisoners.

Patterns … I love patterns. Even then, I’d try and track the patters of the external stimulus. The older gentleman was such a pattern, coming approximately twice a week. I don’t want to get too caught up in the minutiae, but my curiosity was piqued and it led me to asking him exactly what was in those envelopes. His answer was to slide one under my door as well! It’s contents?? Mathematics … gobs of it.

The content he provided was nothing remarkable, but it was all new to me. I studied his material for every hour I was awake. When I slept, I would wake up with the solutions of problems that I could previously solve. I spent weeks in this pattern, and to speak truly, I can’t remember a single voice screaming … no sounds of chaos. Not that it was gone — it wasn’t — but for the first time I had found something that swept me up into a place of beauty and truth …

Y’know, something should be said about the healing that can happen when we are faced with the exploration of truth in mathematics. I started contemplating truth in mathematics and how something just plain “good” could have such beauty. My thoughts didn’t stop there. I began looking into the truth within myself, and without even realizing it I was confronting all of the lies I had built my life from. I’m leaving out so much, because I’m trying to protect anyone reading this from my long-windedness … but there was a day when I sat in my cell and I heard the voices from some of my associates. They were going on in the same way as they always had, but I was annoyed with their same old talk, with the same old essence of the criminal element I knew so well. In that moment I noticed that my values were changing, and it was like I was standing beside myself, watching this new thing take roots inside of my heart, healing scabs that had developed after years of doing NOTHING good. In that moment I was completely in awe of mathematics because in my entire life NOTHING had ever been able to penetrate the falseness I wore in the effort to maintain my ego and fit in.

It was funny … I stood there and I looked at that plain concrete wall — meant as the security against me — and I saw it as a blank slate … I decided right there that with 25 years of my life, I could choose to embrace mathematics and completely rebuild myself. I remember thinking, “With 25 years, I could become a mathematician.”

This is going to sound cheesy, but right then and there, I dedicated the rest of my life to math. I may not be a great mathematician with “huge” discoveries, but I have something truly wonderful, and that is an opportunity to show other people the same meaning and beauty that comes from living a lifestyle that exists around your passions.

So the role of math in self-identity … it can be a tool of transformation by exposure to beauty and truth. A catalyst for change, especially when focused in the right circumstances. Desistance is simply the byproduct of spending your time doing things that are just. plain. “good”!

Wow! Thanks for sharing all of that. I’m so struck by your story, how desistance is just the byproduct of the deeper thing, which is discovering your passion for mathematics. Did Mr G., as you referred to your first source of math problems, voluntarily hand out these worksheets and grade your answers to them?

Yes, I come to find out that they were part of an algebra course. Of course this hadn’t occurred to me the whole time! But Mr G. would send critique and his own passion for math was present. I bombarded that man with requests … asking for double and triple the content. Even after the course was finished, he’d answer my questions until the day where he let me know that I’ve reached the limit of his own math savvy. His words “Mr. Havens, I wish you luck on your journey” was like a spark igniting a fire within me. :] Because it honestly felt like the monumental “goodbye” at the beginning of some grand journey.

That’s so inspiring. Let’s fast forward a little to your research. What was it like, connecting and working with math professors from Italy? Could you describe how the collaboration went?

Sure! The collaboration with my Italian colleagues was amazing. I’ve worked with my colleagues in Turin on several projects, and was even a member of their research group for a few years. I now work with a mathematician in Hanover. But to answer your question, working with the team in Italy was one of the greatest experiences of my life … It was surreal for a while and I learned so much about the process of submitting work, and even the referee process. There are things which, because of my researching outside from academia, I would have never learned … For example, for somebody self-taught, I had no idea what LaTeX was, and how to determine which journal to submit to.. how to identify the quality of such journals and even how to navigate the referee process. This was completely foreign to me. But also the dynamic of working with other human beings on the stuff of our imagination in such a way that results in tiny additions to the wealth of human knowledge … that was priceless, and probably the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced up to that point.

I do research because it’s an endeavor of the heart, and the things I learn about other human beings as a result of collaborative researches has the deepest meaning to me. I think Erdos practiced this same type of “social productivity” where these meaningful endeavors of the heart contribute to the wealth of human knowledge. I don’t think he was after publishing “the next paper” for any paper count … What I think is that he was after the human connection with colorful new people, sampling as much of this beautiful life as he could. I look up to him for that.

My current research partner is in Hanover, a dear friend, Carsten Elsner. I can’t express how beautiful both of my experiences have been, but man … totally different experiences. Carsten and I are a damned good team. He and I both work a lot in the same area, so when I reached out to him, we had become fast friends … More than that, ideas just started falling from our minds and I began a period of research productivity that I’ve never experienced before. One accepted, one submitted, and two more in the works.

The difference in researching with Carsten is that I have more of a working presence with him. He’s a damned analytical engine and I’m slower and very creative, but they seem to complement each other. I love experiencing his imagination, and it’s always nice to blend it into my own! In this work, we handle the referee’s together, we decide on where to submit together and I even write all of my own LaTeX — even though I have no computer to compile it!! But I can see it — in my little brain — as I write and so I’ll send him large emails containing source code , which helps us work more efficiently. The biggest challenge, and this drives him crazy, is that since I can’t tell if my work runs off the page, it often does.

Wow, that’s fantastic! And congratulations on your papers! I’d like to delve into the logistics a little more: How did you learn LaTeX? Do you get to see the output with your own eyes? And what about the correspondence with your co-authors? Could you walk us through the painstaking process of (a) writing and sending physical letters and (b) sending emails?

From researching with my colleagues in Italy, I learned the importance of LaTeX. In fact, I hired a guy to write my LaTeX for me and as I sent him the material, I would read about LaTeX on the side. I built some basic skills of the syntax, but I couldn’t compile it yet, and I didn’t even know how to set up a document.

About a year and a half ago I took a web development course and had the use of an offline laptop for several months, and well, three months before returning the computer I sweet talked the teacher into giving me a LaTeX compiler. Here’s where I learned how to really write and visualize it in my mind, but just as I started getting the hang of it, I had to turn the computer in. So now I will spend the remaining time in my sentence with no computer. That was a blow.. I decided right there to do all my math in LaTeX so that I can improve even without a computer. This is a vital tool for mathematicians, so I bought Grätzer’s “More Math Into LaTeX”, and I study it as I work. When all of the math I do gets done this way, I tend to find ways to improve all the time.

So while I can’t see the PDF version of what I type, I know what it’s supposed to look like, and as I send it to my colleague in Hannover, he sends me critique and a compiled PDF. I’ve gotten to where I can create illustrations with TikZ and still write whole documents virtually error free.
This also relates to your question of the logistical aspects of my researching. All of my math is sent in LaTeX source code so that all one would have to do is compile it and adjust a few possible errors. Also, I don’t have certain symbols, like ampersand. As we know, this is a delimiter, and so I comment out the message to globally replace the “#” symbol with ampersand. Why don’t I have that symbol? Because I do not have actual email capabilities as you might think.

Research with me began by handwritten mail, and it was gruesome because I’d write 30+ pages as neat as possible, and also writing extra copies for myself. I have no access to a copier, so with so much writing, sometimes my handwriting became hard to read. Sometimes I’d send out a copy and have somebody scan it and send me copies, then distribute the copies to my Italian friends. Doing mathematics in prison requires much redundancy.

After a while, I started corresponding using a secure prison version of email called Jpay. I have an offline mp4 player which can send messages similar to text messages. I still use this today … in fact, this is “officially” all I have access to. But it costs both sender and receiver to send messages, and so imagine trying to reach out to another researcher, but first having to ask “Good sir.. I have some questions about your work and would like to know if we can discuss X, Y and Z. But first, can you go to Jpay.com and create an account, which costs you mo ney so that we can continue our talk?”. That’s a huge blockade, but really we have all the technology we need to circumnavigate that obstacle. My solution was to hire an assistant who would manage my outside email accounts. They copy/paste all of my
messages from Jpay to actual email and thus I have built the illusion that I have the same email capabilities that you do. This is how I communicate with the world. So, I do not send snail mail. I just send source code for my math work and regular emails otherwise. The only snag is that I can’t directly receive attachments, but my assistant sends me these attachments via snail mail or by taking pictures of each page and sending them to me as a Jpay image.

That’s extremely impressive. I’m sure your LaTeX skills are easily better than most mathematicians! I still to this day can never use TikZ for any small thing without going through a lot of trial and error. And making copies of your handwritten work, what a task! So from what I gather, even though I seem right now to be communicating with you via email, your actual process is: access a JPay kiosk at your correctional facility, send/receive a message to an outside assistant, who then relays your message to the receiver’s email address. Is that right? And when are you allowed to access JPay? I’m also very curious about your offline mp4 player…

That is almost correct. My outgoing emails are sent to my assistant via Jpay through my tablet. This person manages three email addresses of mine (which I use for various purposes). When they receive a message, they copy it and paste it as a draft in one of my “real” email accounts, and it then has the appearance of being sent out “from me”. When emails come in to my “real” email addresses, my assistant will copy them and paste it into a draft from their Jpay messaging account, and send it to me as a Jpay message. We’ve developed a system for cc’ing, sending subject lines, responding to threads, accepting Zoom invites, … I don’t have Zoom capability either, but I’ve figured that out as well. But to answer the question, I can use a kiosk, but the mp4 tablet I have has an offline Jpay message app, which I can sync every 5 minutes via WiFi. This is what allows me to email with something of a normal frequency.

This frequency is also what inspired the idea of the PMP Console where I can now also program using JavaScript or Python using a simulated console. This is absolutely not possible without a computer … UNLESS, one were to go through the huge effort of having somebody develop some software that could detect whether a Jpay message contained programming or not, and then copy said programming from a Jpay message, make any global changes as necessary, and then paste the programming into the appropriate compiler. After the program is executed, it’s copied out from the computer’s console and pasted back into a Jpay message headed right back at me. So the whole process is automated. This is, in fact, how I learned Python. In doing this, we’ve essentially made programming available to every prisoner with a secured emailing capability, like a Jpay user or a Corrlinks user, etcetera.

I have an annoying habit, when I encounter things that aren’t possible, to figure out how, conceivably, it could work? The fact is that I could do pretty much anything from behind these concrete walls provided that I’m willing to expend sufficient amounts of energy to do it. The more “impossible” a thing should be, the more energy it usually takes … kind of like approaching the speed of light.

Thanks for all the details! So maybe we can transition a little here to your work with PMP. Tell us a little about it, how it got started and how it’s grown. 

Sure! Well, PMP started as a small inmate run program in a single Washington State prison. It began as a way to hold meetings with other math lovers inside of the prison. Another benefit was that we were able to make a library of math books which any participant could use. What I didn’t expect was that it quickly grew into a community … Prisoners who once would have never spared a single moment for one another would stop and talk about their current studies, and then they’d make plans to meet at a later time! In our meetings, the only rule was that we left “prison” outside from our special time together.

We became a group of prisoners dedicated to change via our journey into mathematics, and it wasn’t long before we began hosting Pi Day and Tau Day events for the entire prison, where mathematicians from across the globe would visit in person, giving lectures that were accessible. In these events, mathematicians became rock stars in the eyes of the prison population, where after the event, lines of prisoners seeking autographs would form to each of the mathematicians. Sounds far fetched?? Ahh … but it was magical.

Unfortunately, due to administrative politics, the PMP ended up being disbanded when a correctional officer didn’t want to put in the hours to monitor our program. Then when Covid hit, all programming completely ceased in every prison across the United States. This was around the time when my first research was published and the media grabbed a hold of it something fierce. I had made a comment that one of my goals upon release was to start a nonprofit version of the Prison Mathematics Project, and not long afterwards I was contacted by Walker Blackwell. At the time, Walker was a 15 years old high school student who wanted to be my hands in the community so that we could launch a nonprofit … It was comical, because I thought, “Hell … this kid seems so full of fire, but he’s too young!” And then I realized that he’s experiencing something that I experience all the time, where people don’t take me serious because of my incarceration.

I ended up contacting Walker’s parents, and they were standing at his side in full support so that he could learn some real life skills in doing something truly meaningful … So there it was! Walker, myself and Jack Smith (our business mind) built a program around the limitations of the pandemic that would recreate the conditions I experienced which led to my own success. My personal transformation was so profound and life-altering that I had to share it with all of the other mathematical prisoners in the United States and Canada. The concept is simple … We are a haven for mathematical prisoners who are active in self-studies, and we provide them with mentorship — like I had — who not only lead them towards their mathematical goals, but they teach their mentee about the community and culture of mathematics. I’ve gotta say, that the community is the biggest contributing factor of cultivating desistance from crime. Show them a lifestyle that exists around the one thing for which they’re most passionate about. That’s it!

What a journey! And fast forward to today, how has PMP grown? Where does it stand today, and what are you hopes for the future?

The PMP has grown by leaps and bounds … I mean, just a few months ago the first research supported by PMP was accepted for publication. Now, we are assisting other participants in having their independent researches published in professional journals. We’re also offering guided researches led by … well you, An! This is exciting to see as it begins to unfold.

Another beautiful recent accomplishment is our PMP Console. Many people do not know that prisoners may never use a computer during their incarceration. Some classes for programming exist, but these are very temporary and the computer does not stay with the prisoner. As well, and often, these classes are only available to prisoners with a short sentence. Consequently, prisoners who are spending lengthy sentences may never have the opportunity to learn programming. We just fixed that.

Now, any prisoner with a common prison messaging service like Jpay or Corrlinks can learn Python, R and even JavaScript through a type of email. Our software simulates a console so that when a prisoner sends our organization their code, it is then recognized and compiled. The result is sent back and they receive it as a type of email. Clearly this is not as fast as having a computer in your lap, but I learned Python on this system completely, and it’s a game changer. So where we stand today is here … We are an underfunded organization, yet we change lives on a shoestring budget. It’s hard, but it’s what we have to work with, and so we move forward boldly into our future.

My hopes for this future of PMP is to launch a Juvenile PMP which can help lead our incarcerated youth towards a better life. I remember reflecting on what would it have taken for me not to have made the mistake I’ve made. I never stopped long enough to appreciate the beauty of mathematics. I had the capacity my whole life, but I was always trying to impress whomever was next to me, and so I never found the beauty I see all around me today. These kids … You can almost see it as an opportunity. They’re sitting still inside of a prison. Now it’s our job to show them that a lifestyle can exist around something that they can be passionate about … while they are currently sitting still.

It’s really exciting to see how far PMP has come under your leadership and vision. To close out our conversation, how can people contribute? Where can people follow PMP’s work and maybe even get involved?

People can contribute in a number of ways! One of the easiest ways is to donate by visiting our website at www.prisonmathproject.org and clicking on the Donations tab. There is another way to donate to PMP through DonateStock (www.donatestock.com) where you can donate stock and they will match up to 1000 USD in value. Since we’re a registered 501c3 nonprofit, all of your contributions are tax deductible and will go towards helping towards making our world a better place through the spread of the maths!

Really, there are so many ways to help, especially in running PMP. Currently we are looking for folks with organizational experience for several roles, like in management, fundraising, social media marketing and even mentorship. We are also currently building a large collection of modules for teaching self learners in restrictive environments … We need educators who can contribute to this project. If anyone wants to learn more, please visit our site at www.prisonmathproject.org or email me at christopher@pmathp.org. I’d love get more people involved with something as meaningful as Justice in this pursuit of beauty via the maths!

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