Friday, October 5, 2018
Contrast (1 of 2) by Christopher Havens
We've all been asked the question; "What are the first things you want to do when you get out of prison?" I feel like I've heard almost every possible permutation of replies. ...eat a cheeseburger, a medium rare steak.. buy a new car. ... mine are to finally be able to enjoy the company of the mathematical community and to chase down the mythical unicorn. ... I know it exists. It's called CAS - computer algebra system. There is software that will keep me from having to wrap my room in 12 foot sections of paper! These equations have a mind of their own.. but although comical, that is what I'd like to do. Unfortunately, this wasn't always my mindset.
Indeed, in 2010 I caught a 25 year sentence for murder. I was 30 at the time and with no prior convictions, I was scared. My knowledge of prison amounted to what I had seen in the movies. ...and of course, there's that line; "If you ever go to prison, the first thing you do is find the biggest guy in the yard, and you punch him in the face." Because in theory, everyone is supposed to think twice about messing with you afterwards, right? And such was my mentality when I arrived at Walla Walla maximum security.
As soon as I arrived, I was scouted by several gangs, and after a few months of playing prison politics, I was a probate for one of those gangs. This led me to being involved in a hit.. something involving boiling hot Vaseline, which in turn landed me in solitary confinement for a year. If you've never been to the hole, it's 24 hours a day of people banging on the walls and yelling out their cell doors... the bed is a concrete slab, and the large fluorescent light directly above your head never shuts off. Most people don't handle it too well. Some of them snap, and move on to more colorful things, like rubbing crap on the walls. Myself, I played Sudoku.
After only a short time in, I noticed an older gentleman passing out manila envelopes to some of the other institutionally challenged folk. The old man had a following so whatever was in the envelopes must've provoked interest. By this time, Sudoku was getting old, and I was so compelled that I asked.. "Can I have an envelope too?". I come to find out that the man's name was simply "Mr. G". He worked in education, and the contents of an envelope was enough math work to keep you busy for a week or two. When you finished, you'd give him your envelope, and shortly after, he'd replace the envelope with graded papers, comments and more work. My mind was like a sponge. His trips to my cell door were much more frequent than the others. I believe the old man took to a caffeine habit because of me. Suddenly everything seemed less important. The sounds of the yelling and banging faded into nothing. I had tons of books sent in, and lesson upon lesson... But before long, I received a kite (message) from Mr. G saying... "Mr. Havens. At this time you have surpassed my mathematical abilities and I wish you luck on your journey." That was the spark.. a proper invitation to a life of mathematics. And for the first time in my life, I experienced drive.
Now that the envelopes were no longer there to keep me busy I studied any math I could. I kept this up for the better part of my time in the hole until I was shipped off to Clallam Bay prison on a special chain, where I would finish the remainder of my time in segregation. After I finished, I was released back into general population, but it wasn't the same as before. My mind had begun a transformation without me even realizing it and I found myself having less and less in common with the old gang. Our interests were no longer aligned. They diverged. Here's a fact. It is NOT possible to talk math with the guys playing gangster on the big yard. It doesn't work. I tried. So I kept to myself and I studied the maths. I went down the rabbit hole. I was in the process of a full blown metamorphosis into a totally different person. I wasn't even sure who I was anymore... and so I decided to enter into the Intensive Transition Program. ...I.T.P. .
The ITP is exactly as its name implies. It's an intense one year program designed to effective aid you, with surgical precision, in taking your head from your ass. So I did just that... and it was tough. This was my schedule; Eat, do math, remove my head from my backside... brush, rinse, repeat.
This time in my life was important because aside from my programming, my studies became deep.. and meaningful. Shortly before graduating ITP, something fateful took place. I wrote to UC Berkeley to find out about a certain math journal and I was told by the editor it was so technical, that it was probably a little out of my league. Which at the time, it was. But because of my interest in certain fields of study, he decided to pass my info along to a colleague. A couple months later, in 2013, I received a letter from Italy by one Professor Luisella Caire. This was huge for me.. because I had no one I could talk math to. If I got stuck on a problem, there would be no help. In our letters we'd talk about the recent math nonfictions we had read, we'd talk a little calculus, but one of the things I found most valuable was whenever I got stuck on a problem, she'd never simply tell me the answer. Instead, she'd send me some information on the subject so that I could further research the problem and find the answer on my own. At the time, I was studying different modular arithmetic based cryptosystems, I could read and write barcodes, write my own RSA encryption scheme... I thought this made me some kind of number theorist. But in reality, back on earth, in the swamps of prison, I had never even gotten my feet wet. Actually, number theory, the "queen of mathematics", was introduced to me by Luisella.
End part 1 of 2