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The Prison Mathematics Project helps incarcerated people study math and build social connections.
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When Christopher Havens emerged from a year in solitary confinement, he reached out for community in an unlikely place: the world of math. 

In 2012, Havens was serving a 25-year sentence for murder. He said his longing for ever-elusive camaraderie led him to engage in prison gang activity, which took him to a maximum-security cell. But the isolation helped him discover a passion for mathematics. He spent the year in solitary studying on his own, and when he finally got out of the hole and wanted to reconnect with society, he asked for help with further studies. 

As Havens started to branch out to number theory and algebraic systems, he wrote a letter for help to the Annals of Mathematics, a journal published by Princeton University. A few months later, an answer came from professor Luisa Claire at the Politecnico di Torino, a leading technical university in Italy. Claire began mentoring Havens and sending books, journals and other educational materials. Unfortunately, the materials were often rejected by the prison. 

“I told her that someday I’d move to another prison and ‘infiltrate’ their education department, start a math program and build a great library with all of those math books that had been rejected over the years,” Havens said. In 2015, he was transferred to a minimum security unit at Monroe Correctional Complex’s Twin Rivers Unit and, in 2016, Havens started the Prison Mathematics Project (PMP). 

The idea behind the PMP is that math can play a role in positive identity formation and help people turn away from crime by fostering a lifestyle around mathematical pursuits. To do this, the PMP supports prisoners in their study of mathematics by connecting them with needed resources. A regular PMP newsletter includes challenging problems, articles by mathematicians, and materials readers can use for group study programs at their facilities. 

But one of the biggest resources is a connection to mentors who help foster and guide their studies. Academics mentor the more advanced participants, and some of these teams have even published peer-reviewed research. 

“We provide mentorship to carry our participants towards their academic goals, while introducing them to the culture and community of mathematics,” Havens said. “We give opportunities for projects and research, and non-accredited upper-level courses by mathematicians and computer scientists.” 

Havens believes that community is key to bringing people from the brink of criminal activity to an engaged, pro-social mindset.

With PMP’s help, some incarcerated members have done serious academic work. But there are practical barriers for incarcerated people who want to publish mathematical research. A published number theorist himself, Havens describes research as “one of the purest forms of contribution to society, as it serves as an addition to the wealth of human knowledge.” PMP has focused on helping research-ready participants publish in professional journals. According to Havens, PMP has supported five research projects through the submission process to date; one of these was recently accepted for publication. 

Originally founded within the Washington State Department of Corrections system, the PMP is now a nonprofit with international scope, serving prisoners in the U.S. and Canada. Participating from all over the world, correspondents, academics and course instructors aim to help incarcerated people transform their lives by teaching them how to slow down to untangle difficult mathematical logic. The PMP has since grown to include a team of volunteers who help manage operations from outside prison and perform many of the organization’s vital functions.

Havens, the founder of PMP, said the program has been his proactive answer to the difficulty he faced in making connections with others, and he said math helped restore his sense of humanity and productivity. He wants to be sure that the next person who finds themself in a similar situation has access to the guidance before they also wind up mentally or physically isolated.

In August, I interviewed a pair of PMP participants at the Twin Rivers Unit about how the project has impacted them. Excerpts from these discussions are below. The responses have been lightly edited and condensed. 

Q: What have you gotten out of participating in PMP?

Rory Andes: It has given me a chance to engage in a much broader world of both mathematics and, more importantly to me, social connectivity about all things “community.” It has been so uplifting.

Randy Brennan: I’ve gotten a sense of support and fellowship. Math has been a challenging and intimidating journey, but it has been easier with people to accompany me.

Q: Do you believe participating has increased your chances of succeeding when you are released from prison?

Andes: My success after prison will be given a boost because PMP has shown me that I’m simply not alone. The work in academia will be important to me also when I pursue higher education after my release.

Brennan: It has helped me practice sticking with something even when it became challenging and difficult, which are skills that translate to a successful restart of my life outside prison.

Q: Would you recommend PMP to other prisoners?

Andes: I would deeply recommend the PMP. It shows that the participants matter, belonging is possible, and there’s so much more to justice than just “serving time.” It’s about getting involved.

Brennan: There is no better way to spend time in prison than to invest in one’s future by learning problem-solving skills and personal education. Practicing solving problems creates better problem-solvers and develops better critical thinking skills, which are characteristics of one’s successful reintegration back into society.

Q: Give an example of the kinds of things you’ve learned.

Andes: I’ve had a chance to learn about how math plays into political gerrymandering. As a fan of politics, this was a great place to see the two worlds collide.

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Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chris Bistryski is one of the founders of Elephant in the Room, a publication at Monroe Corrections Complex-Special Offenders Unit in Washington. He is incarcerated in the state of Washington.