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Fitness Freaks

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Jean Collins
Jean Collins

[S3E10] A Cheesy Situation ((FULL))



Operator 0:02 You have a prepaid call. This call is from -Christopher Havens 0:05 Christopher Operator 0:05 - an inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex. This call will be recorded and monitored. To accept this call, press "5" now.Vanessa Vakharia 0:15 (dials "5")Operator 0:16 Thank you.Christopher Havens 0:17 Hey! ... how is everybody?Vanessa Vakharia 0:22 (laughing) We're doing good! How are you doing over there?Christopher Havens 0:25 Oh, I'm doing pretty good. A little bit nervous, but I am doing well.Vanessa Vakharia 0:29 Well, I think we're both equally nervous probably, because this is for sure the first time I've ever interviewed someone in jail, so yeah, we're ... I'm nervous too!Christopher Havens 0:38 (laughing)Vanessa Vakharia 0:39 Okay, good. I'm glad that was funny. I'm like, is that funny or awkward? I don't even know! (show intro)Vanessa Vakharia 0:43 Hi, I'm Vanessa Vakharia, aka The Math Guru. And you're listening to Math Therapy, a podcast that helps guests work through their math traumas one problem at a time. Whether you think you're a math person or not, you're about to find out that math people don't actually exist. But the scars that math class left on many of us definitely do. Oh, and don't worry, no calculators or actual math were involved in the making of this podcast. (episode intro)Vanessa Vakharia 1:09 Guys, this is the last episode of our "math in the media" themed season, and I would be lying if I said that I didn't lowkey save the best for last. Like for real. This is by far the craziest interview I've ever done. Why? Well, for one, this is the first time I've spoken to a legit prison inmate, let alone interviewed one about math. Today's guest is Christopher Havens who was all over the media in late 2020 talking about the incredible connection between math and rehabilitation. While serving a 25 year prison sentence for murder, Christopher discovered math and it gave him a meaning and purpose he had never known before, inspiring him to dedicate the rest of his life to repaying his debt to society, and helping fellow inmates find their own path to rehabilitation through the prison mathematics project that he founded. I wanted this interview to go on for like 10 hours, but it turns out that when you call Monroe Correctional Complex, you only actually have 20 minutes before your call disconnects. But Christopher had this elaborate system with the help of some of his fellow inmates so that we could make sure to finish the convo, and I'm so honored to be able to share this with you today. Since this is a podcast about the perception and impact of math and society, that's what we focused on - but if you want to know more about Christopher's life before math, you can find a really thorough profile on him in the January 2021 issue of Popular Mechanics. All right, last interview of the season, let's do this.Vanessa Vakharia 2:31 Okay, so let's just get right into it. I want to know how you discovered math?Christopher Havens 2:38 That's kind of an interesting story. I started studying math while I was in solitary confinement. I just got hooked on it. At first, I was in solitary and I was doing Sudoku puzzles to pass my time and then some working out, and it got so monotonous. And so, you know, every day was the same, I could pick patterns out of the movements of everybody. And one of those patterns was this older gentleman walking by throwing envelopes under people's doors. And after a couple weeks, I was curious, because that was the only thing there was to be curious about (laughing) and I asked him what was in the envelopes, and the next day, he shot one under my door and it just happened to be full of math homework, just basic algebra, and trades math. But in that segregation, I just kind of fell into this deep study of it, it consumed my time in a much more meaningful way than any of those puzzles did. And I just kind of became addicted. And I studied and I studied and I was up so late, just doing nothing but that, and my dreams and everything was affected by it.Christopher Havens 3:49 And after several months, my thinking and my values began to change. And it was really strange, because I noticed it happening while it was happening. And I remember one time that I was standing there in my cell looking at the concrete on the wall. And I'm just kind of standing there staring off into space at this wall. And I was like, you know, I have 25 years - I can totally become a wizard. And so I decided to start studying mathematics for the rest of my time. And I made this goal that I would learn cryptography and that I would start researching math and I tried to set a goal of publishing math while I was in prison, and it happened within a few years. So it was really amazing, just the whole process. But that was kind of the start of my journey.Vanessa Vakharia 4:39 That is so crazy. So first I just want to touch on the fact that, whatever word you would use, the way you're describing it to me sounds like a real, like, spiritual experience which most people don't think of when they think of math. People think of math as so cold and so logical, but the way you're explaining it is so beautiful, and to say that math started transforming you as a person and your perspectives, is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard with regards to someone learning math. So I definitely want to talk about that more. But first, I've got to ask you, were you always interested in math? Like, it's so crazy for me to think that you just got this manila envelope of algebra and you weren't like, "Oh, fuck this" - like, did you like math before? What was your relationship with it before this point?Christopher Havens 5:27 I didn't have a relationship with it. Before this point, my mother says that I was really good at it when I was in school. But most of my adolescent years are really fuzzy to me, because I was really big into drug abuse. And so there's a lot of parts of my life that I just can't really recall properly, and that's just one of them. My whole school years - I don't remember being in the math like she describes, just specifically because I don't remember those little details. But it is a spiritual thing for me, in a sense that it's kind of opened my eyes to joy, and beauty and everything I do, because it's all done through this lens of mathematics, and it's not this clinical thing for me.Vanessa Vakharia 6:18 Yeah, well, I remember, I actually failed math twice when I was in high school, and I was always told I wasn't the "type" of person who'd be good at math. And I remember, when I finally had it shown to me in a way that I really understood, it became so meditative for me, because, yeah, something about doing the problem, especially when you have like a crazy algebra problem, and it takes up the whole page, and then the answer is like zero or something, and you're like, "Holy fuck!"Christopher Havens 6:44 All that for ... nothing?! (laughing)Vanessa Vakharia 6:47 Exactly! (laughing) But it feels so cool, and it's so clean, and you're in a different mind frame when you're working through a problem or trying to solve a problem and thinking mathematically. So I think that's really, really cool. And for that reason, I also became a teacher, right, I wanted to show other people that they can feel this way while doing math. But more than that, that they can feel a certain way about themselves. So being a high school dropout yourself, and never feeling like you've had a relationship with math and obviously, having so much go on in your life - when you started finding math as this spiritual thing, did it change at all - like, I really don't know much about what your outlook was on yourself, or on the fact that you were in prison for 25 more years, like, did it change the way you saw yourself as a human in this world?Christopher Havens 7:35 Yeah, it definitely did. That's one of the reasons why I love math so much. Because if anybody's seen my mug shots, they're looking at a totally different person. And it's kind of a scary sight. When I first started doing math in the hole, and as I watched it kind of transforming my thoughts and my behaviors, that power right there to change somebody that I was in that mug shot: that's amazing. And I just, you know, I would probably consider myself to have been one of the lowest creatures on this planet at one point of time - there was nothing good about anything I did. There was no goals or ambitions, and I didn't contribute to society at all ... I don't know, I feel like I'm failing at answering your question, I just got sidetracked, but -Vanessa Vakharia 8:27 No, I think you did answer my question. And I think it's so beautiful, and it leads right into what I really can't wait for you to tell me more about which is - you have started the prison mathematics project, right? So you've come from this place where you've used what's happened to you, you found math and saw how it transformed you, and now you're like, holy shit, I am going to use this power to help transform other people. Not that I don't want to put words in your mouth, I'm like rewriting your whole story (laughing)Christopher Havens 8:54 No no, that's exactly it. Because there was that transformative process I was telling you about. And the fact that it could change somebody with such contrast - like, the contrast from then to now is so, so huge. And while I was going through it, it was such a beautiful experience. And it totally filled my life with this joy that I've never experienced. And I guess that the only way I can compare this is how other people talk about God. And I'm not talking about God, I'm talking about mathematics, and I wanted to share that with people. Because I am pretty big into the idea of justice and self rehabilitation. And if mathematics could change me like that, I wanted other people to be able to experience it. So we sought to replicate these conditions that I was given, and that is the Prison Mathematics Project. When I had first met my mentor in the math community Luisella (Professor Luisella Caire of the Politecnico di Torino), I was studying in this big, empty place where I didn't have any feedback because I didn't have a teacher and it was kind of alone, even though I love doing what I did. But when I had that element of community, it changed the game considerably. And we want to provide everybody with that element of the community without having to wait all those years to find it. Like, if we can nurse them into this path of desistance - when they're in a mind state that's already receptive, I think that there's a huge potential for change right there, and that's kind of the heart of it.Vanessa Vakharia 10:44 That speaks so greatly to the need for a mentor or for role models or for just that connection. And actually, that's part of the reason this podcast exists, because the truth is, learning can often be very isolating. So not only is it isolating at the best of times, like here you are, you want to learn math, and you're feeling isolated, but especially for students who already feel like they don't belong in the mathematical community, like maybe you did when you were younger, or like I did, or many of the people listening to this podcast just feel ostracized from it, it's already so isolating, just feeling that way, that without a mentor or a program like yours, or someone to reach out to, it can be impossible to ever bridge that divide - oh, my God, math pun! (laughing) But it can be impossible to do that. So what you're doing is so cool.Vanessa Vakharia 11:33 And actually, I want to fact check - I read somewhere that during the beginning of your studies, you'd actual,ly reached out to a math journal to ask for some help because of what you said the fact that you were kind of studying alone and had no one to ask. Can you tell me what happened there?Christopher Havens 11:48 Yeah, I was just on the end of my stay in the hole, or what you guys know as isolation. And I was studying number theory, but like a bull in a china shop. And I reached out to this journal, the annals of mathematics, and I asked them for a little bit of help. And I told them my situation, and they wrote back saying that they felt that their journal was probably going to be a little bit over my head. But then in turn, they thought that they would pass my information along to one of their colleagues. And several months later, I got a letter from Luisella in Italy, who's a great friend of mine to this day, and she was my mentor for many years. And actually, not many people know this, but it was her and I that kind of sat there after so many books were rejected coming into the institution, we just brainstormed and had this idea of the Prison Mathematics Project. And it didn't have a name back then, but that was kind of the plan, to come to this new institution when I changed prisons, and start this -Operator 12:56 You have 60 seconds remaining.Vanessa Vakharia 12:58 (gasps)Christopher Havens 12:58 - program where we can get these books, and that's kind of how the program got started in the first place. But we're about to get cut off, so let me call you back.Vanessa Vakharia 13:08 Okay, perfect, because then you're going to tell us all about how the program works.Christopher Havens 13:12 Okay, cool! (hangs up)Operator 13:15 (dial tone) To accept this call, press "5" now. To decline this -Vanessa Vakharia 13:20 (dials "5")Operator 13:20 Thank you.Christopher Havens 13:20 Hey, I'm back.Vanessa Vakharia 13:22 Oh my god, we are back everyone! Okay, tell me about the prison mathematics project. Like, you know, I'm a prisoner who wants to learn math - what happens?Christopher Havens 13:31 Sure! You would write into our organization - we have a PO box. And from there, we have an electronic mail service that scans it and sends it into our website to our volunteers. So the volunteer that's working with that participant inmate will then respond to them electronically, so it's COVID-safe, but it also allows that link and it also allows you to insert anything you want and those responses in there kind of mimicking the idea of those math packs that I was getting while I was in the hole, except this has the added element of this person acting as your mentor and responding to you about just anything, if you need somebody to talk to as a mentor, if you want to learn a little bit of history on a subject or whatever. That's kind of the job, it's just to teach them the essence of mathematics, to bring them into this community and to kind of show them that a different lifestyle exists where they can do something that they love.Vanessa Vakharia 14:38 Ok, wow. All right. So I mean, maybe it's just me but like, did this take off? Or were people like "what the fuck dude, I don't want to learn math"? How did you start convincing people in prison that this was a good idea? I just - the classic stereotype would have me believe that people were like, "Chris - no."Christopher Havens 14:58 There was a few of the admin that were like "Well, how many people are actually going to want something like that, because it's math?" And there was actually a bunch of people, it was pretty neat. But we don't have it inside the prison anymore because of COVID, but we were doing events and hundreds of people were showing up at these events, and mathematicians from all over the world were flying in. And it was so amazing.Vanessa Vakharia 15:23 Wait, what?! That is crazy, this is wild.Christopher Havens 15:26 Yeah, it was pretty cool. So the idea is that we can't have lectures, right? We don't have anybody to give us lectures. So bring the lecturers into the prison by holding an event and inviting a bunch of professors to talk to us and give us lectures. That was the whole thing and it turned out so amazing.Vanessa Vakharia 15:45 It's just so cool. And I mentioned this before, but I wasn't even joking. I'm all about breaking stereotypes about what it means to be a math person. And I always think about that, like I think about myself - I'm always the type of person who gets pegged as not being the "type" of person who's good at math, but I've never really delved into the prison stereotype, which I mean, I just said myself that it's hard to imagine that a bunch of prisoners would want to do math. And here you are being like, "Well, actually, you're totally wrong". So I actually want to take a pause and talk about that. I don't know, maybe I'm just making this up, but I wonder if there is a belief or a false stereotype that maybe they just wouldn't be interested? Whereas you're kind of proving the opposite that actually, if given the opportunity, it is something that people are interested in?Christopher Havens 16:32 Well, that's kind of true - a lot of the people are not interested, because there is a lot of people who play the prison game. But a lot of people are seeing the things that are happening because of what I do, and there are a good amount of people that are kind of following suit, which is really inspirational for me.Vanessa Vakharia 16:53 Wait, what's that, what's the prison game?Christopher Havens 16:54 The prison game is kind of what everybody does by default when they come to prison, or it's this politics that exists inside the prison that exists on a bed of fallacies - the "convict code" or whatever. And you have a lot of people that play that game, they come to prison because they screwed up, and then all they know of prison is what they've heard or see on the TV, or in the movies, and so they play that part as a defense mechanism. And it becomes that reality for a while until they learn that it doesn't have to be - it's very real, but it's also something that can be changed externally, from a sociological perspective. It's what we perceive the prisoner to be that kind of drives that idea.Vanessa Vakharia 17:42 Well, I think what's so cool, and maybe you don't even realize this, but I think by doing a program like this, and even this interview and the journals you've been in and the interviews you've been doing, I think you're actually doing a lot more than you think. Like you're not just changing what happens in prison on micro level with the people who are choosing to do math, but I think you're showing the world that there is way more to prisoners than the the stereotypical prison game. I hadn't even thought about this aspect of it, that really your goal isn't just to change what's happening in the present, but to change what's happening outside so that when people get inside, they are motivated to act differently and to actually rehabilitate themselves. And I think that's so fucking cool. Do you personally have an anecdote or a situation you can think of where your program has helped someone rehabilitate or change their perception of self?Christopher Havens 18:35 Right off the top of my head? There was this event that we had in 2017 for Pi Day, and -Vanessa Vakharia 18:43 Pi Day? Yes!!Christopher Havens 18:43 Yeah, well, I throw some events on Pi Day because it's one of my holidays!Vanessa Vakharia 18:48 (laughing)Christopher Havens 18:49 And so we had this really cool event with some really cool mathematicians. And it got written about in the Math Horizons magazine. And some inmate from Michigan heard about this an


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