Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Science

How a convicted killer’s passion for math inspired him to change his life — and others’

How a convicted killer's passion for math inspired him to change his life — and others'
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A convicted killer who taught himself advanced math from behind bars and is now sharing his love of numbers with other inmates says prisoners need opportunities to better themselves so they can be rehabilitated.

“We need to be able to have that opportunity to make these personal changes inside of us, and sometimes those personal changes, after all the scabs that are being peeled off, you eventually experience a couple breaks in the clouds here and there,” Christopher Havens, an inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex northeast of Seattle, told The Current‘s Matt Galloway.

“Mathematics has been that break in the clouds for me.”

Havens, a former drug addict and high school dropout, was convicted in 2011 of murdering a man in a drug-related shooting and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

During his imprisonment, he turned to math. Since then, he’s had his first article published in a prestigious math journal and started the Prison Mathematics Project, which pairs inmates with volunteers in the mathematics community and provides them with materials to learn about the subject.

Havens’s hope is that giving prisoners a chance to learn about math might inspire them to pursue their own passions — math or otherwise.

The ‘transformative’ power of math

Havens’s interest in math began not long after his conviction, when he was ordered to spend a year in solitary confinement for bad behaviour. While in “the hole,” as he calls it, Havens passed the time by doing puzzles.

One day, he noticed an older gentleman passing out little manila envelopes.

“It got my curiosity, because people seemed to be really taken to these,” Havens explained.

After a few months, he spoke to the man and discovered the envelopes were filled with math problems.

I stayed up doing this math. It was better than the puzzles. And I just kind of kept going and never stopped.​​​​​​– Christopher Havens, Prison Mathematics Project founder

“He gave me one of these envelopes and I just kind of got hooked,” Havens said. 

“I stayed up doing this math. It was better than the puzzles. And I just kind of kept going and never stopped.”

Havens started by teaching himself basic arithmetic and algebra, but soon outgrew those facets of the subject. With no one to teach him math in prison, he decided to contact a math journal to ask for help.

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash., where Havens is serving his sentence. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/The Associated Press)

Eventually he received a response back that included research to further his studies — something he said changed his life.

“I thought I knew beauty then and I really didn’t,” Havens said. “There’s so much to mathematics. Every time you learn a little bit more, you’re just in awe of how much you don’t know. And the things that come about are always so beautiful — even your failures.”

As Havens travelled deeper along his mathematical journey, he said he realized his thought process was no longer the same. He started having a hard time relating to the people he’d associated with his whole life.

He said it was that “transformative” power of math that inspired him to invite others to explore his passion for the subject.

There’s so much to mathematics. Every time you learn a little bit more, you’re just in awe of how much you don’t know. ​​​​​​– Christopher Havens

“If I can experience this change from a deep study and exploration of mathematics and the sciences, then I wanted to share that,” said Havens. 

“And what better way to do it than, you know, starting a program that would allow us to interact with each other and to share this passion together?”

An unlikely partnership

Walker Blackwell, 15, told Galloway that what inspired him most about Havens’s story “was that he had no resources.” 

“There were very little math textbooks or anything like that, and all the resources he had and like, used, he went out and got those himself. And so that was inspirational to me that he took action instead of letting action come to him.”

Havens and Blackwell — a teenager from Plano, Texas — may sound like an unlikely pair. 

But the two share a deep love for math.

When Blackwell read about Havens’s Prison Mathematics Project online, he knew he wanted to get involved.

“I think we take mathematics for granted — we being, like, students in America,” Blackwell said. “Every day we’re taught, but not everyone is taught. And so teaching prisoners — [a] neglected part of our community — I think is so cool.”

So Blackwell reached out to Havens via email to ask if he’d be interested in partnering with him to transform the project into a national program.

“My goal was to wait until I [was] released and I would start this [Prison Mathematics Project] non-profit up, and here comes this guy that’s just full of fire,” Havens said of the first time he heard from Blackwell.

“Then at the end of the e-mail he drops the bombshell saying that he’s still in high school. And it stopped me in my tracks.”

Walker Blackwell, a 15-year-old from Plano, Texas, says students take their ability to learn math in school for granted. He says he wanted to help a ‘neglected’ part of the community learn the subject through the Prison Mathematics Project. (BlackwellDepict)

As Havens thought about Blackwell’s proposal, it occurred to him that perhaps they had more in common than their intrigue with numbers.

Society has a preconceived idea of what prisoners are like, Havens said, which can make it difficult to work with people in the outside world because he’s not always taken seriously.

“Interacting with people in the community is sometimes hard when you lead with, ‘I’m a prisoner,’ because they treat me like a prisoner instead of a peer.

“I see that Walker’s probably experiencing the same adversity because of his age,” he said. “But in reality, that kid is driven like nobody else.”

Aiming to reduce recidivism rates

Blackwell was nervous when he first reached out; he said he wasn’t sure if Havens would even respond.

“I was very pleased when he did,” said the teen.

Now the two mathematicians are working to find more books and volunteers to expand the Prison Mathematics Project. 

“It’s just a great partnership because … he has all these contacts and references,” said Blackwell. “And I’m kind of like Christopher’s eyes and ears outside of prison.”

My goal is to get out and not be the same thing. I am going to be outputted as a functioning member of society…. And that’s, I think, the best mode of justice there is.– Christopher Havens

They hope their work will help reduce recidivism rates in the U.S. — the likelihood that a prisoner will reoffend once they’ve been released.

Data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows it’s a common issue.

Of more than 400,000 prisoners released across 30 U.S. states in 2005, an estimated 68 per cent were arrested within three years, according to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. By the ninth year, that number jumped to 83 per cent.

Havens, for one, does not want to be part of those statistics.

“My goal is to get out and not be the same thing. I am going to be outputted as a functioning member of society,” he said.

“I’m going to do research and I’m going to make math. And that’s, I think, the best mode of justice there is.”

Trying to make a positive impact

While some people may feel that prisoners should spend their time behind bars in misery for the crimes they’ve committed, Havens said he believes rehabilitation is the best way to prevent people from committing crimes again.

Christopher Havens gives a speech to prisoners and mathematicians during a Pi Day event at the Monroe Correctional Complex, northeast of Seattle. (Submitted by Christopher Havens)

He hopes his victim’s family would want the same thing — to know that he is trying to do something positive with his time in prison.

“When I do work, I dedicate it to my victim because he is a constant reminder in my life of exactly where I should be pointing,” Havens said. “I need to be moving forward, and I can’t go back to that lifestyle because I’ve already failed at it.”

Havens said he knows he has hurt people, and he will spend the rest of his life working on a debt he cannot repay.

That’s why he wants to do something that will benefit other people when he’s released some day.

“When I get out, I’m going to continue this,” Havens said. 

“I’d like to be attending the conferences and meeting these people that I’ve been corresponding with, and just building the Prison Mathematics Project up so that we can help other people go through these same changes.”


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by John Chipman.



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