In a stunning story, 40-year-old Christopher Havens from the United States, a murder-convict serving his 25-year sentence, taught himself mathematics in prison and grew skilled enough that he solved an ancient mathematical problem that has stumped mathematicians as old and ancient as the Greek mathematician Euclid.
Havens discovered a passion for math while in prison and taught himself the basics of higher mathematics. He even managed to gain access to textbooks on the subject on the condition that he teaches his fellow inmates mathematics as well. Eventually, however, even these books proved too simple for him and Havens hand-wrote a letter to a mathematical publisher, requesting copies of some issues of renowned journal the Annals of Mathematics so he could continue his “mission”.
Soon the letter reached mathematics professor Umberto Cerruti, who, although skeptical, sent Havens a complex mathematical problem to see if he could solve it. Havens was successful in solving it, sending Cerruti a single piece of paper with a long formula written on it. Realizing his potential, the surprised professor encouraged the prisoner to help him solve an ancient mathematical problem he himself had been working on – a problem from number theory involving continuous fractions.
Havens managed to unlock the secrets of the puzzle and, with the assistance of Cerruti, formulated them in a scientifically coherent manner, eventually jointly publishing the discovery in the journal Research in Number Theory.
While Havens is teaching other prisoners mathematics and continuing his own journey into the subject, referring to it as paying back his “debt to society”, the matter has sparked debate on the role of prisons and whether or not they are meant for rehabilitation or punishment.
The incident certainly suggests that Havens, and undoubtedly many other prisoners, can be rehabilitated and actively contribute to society’s betterment if they are treated properly and given the opportunity to learn and develop. While it is easy to get lost in the romanticism and idealism of the story and forget that Havens is indeed a murderer who took a fellow human being’s life, the prisoner’s development does bring further credence to the idea of second chances in life, even among the people deemed “scum”.