Math in Prison: It’s all about Time

“The world of mathematics exists in an eternal present, a state in which neither the past nor the future have any meaning” -Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

greek-mult-2In prison, time is everything.  Prisoners obsess over it, and are as much imprisoned by time as by the physical structures that make up the prisons.  This becomes apparent when you talk to incarcerated people. They become experts in measuring things using units of time. I’ve heard people tell me the number of seconds that they spent living within the bricks, cement, steel and stones that make up the prison.

The simplest measurement breaks all of time into three parts: the past, the present, and the future. We only exist in the present, but we are often judged by our pasts when charting our futures. For some people, their past is an asset–this is why we have resumes. To others, especially those that have spent part of their pasts in prison, the past is a burden. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections (“RIDOC”) provides educational opportunities to inmates “to help them become productive and law-abiding members of the community.” The theory is that a past that contains an education can transcend a past that contains some criminality. The TTEF Founders are a testament that this strategy works. What we do in our present becomes our past and helps dictate our future.

I’d like to see an expansion in the mathematics offerings at the RIDOC, particularly because the current demand for math skills in our economy is so high. The main ingredient to the successful study of mathematics is time. Dr. Jean Marie Linhart of Texas Tech University compared math to running–just like you have to train your body to run 10 miles, you have to train your mind to do “10 miles worth” of math. Mathematics requires practice and contemplation–both of which take time. The past provides us with examples of mathematicians making great discoveries while in prison. Jakow Trachtenberg developed his system for calculation while imprisoned by the Nazis. During WWII, Andre Weil was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector to war and attempting to flee conscription. During his imprisonment, he wrote letters to his sister, one of which became the basis of some of his fundamental work in algebraic geometry. Currently, math skills are in high demand, and the future outlook for mathematicians is very bright. Technical fields may be an area where criminal histories are more easily overcome since these fields are often more concerned with your skills and proficiencies than with the scarlet branding of a criminal history.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once wrote: “the world of mathematics exists in an eternal present, a state in which neither the past nor the future have any meaning.” It is perhaps paradoxical that something that requires so much time to master can actually free someone from the prison of time. Expanding the mathematics offerings in prison will provide a constructive way to fill up the present, and expand the opportunities available to the students upon release. The study of mathematics provides broad and transferable skills. It’s a skill set that is applicable in a wide range of industries and would allow a formerly incarcerated person to find a career that is more interested in the present than in their past.

Cris Potter is an advisory board of TTEF.  He is also a volunteer Math instructor at the RIDOC.


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