Limits of Transcendence: Our Failure to Protect Prisoners
All of these beneficial effects constitute, to my mind, a 'practical application' for math that warrants mentioning in the same breath as its uses in science and technology. In particular, I always thought these virtues seemed especially well-suited to empower and improve the constrained lives of prisoners. I know of one example--Paul Turan seems to have invented extremal graph theory in a Hungarian labor camp during WWII--but Turan was admittedly already a professional mathematician. Of course math isn't for everyone, but I would be very interested to know whether it's been taught specifically for enjoyment in prisons, and with what results.
It's an exciting idea to me, and I hope it excites others. However, it'd be irresponsible and dishonest to pursue it without acknowledging math's limits as a life practice. Coping with boredom is one thing, but, speaking personally, my mathematical thinking goes to pieces when I'm in acute distress or suffering. There's a limit to what we should reasonably expect to transcend through math, just as with art, religion, meditation, and other such 'soft' techniques... which brings me to what actually prompted this post: news from California that makes me ashamed of the state of affairs in my home state.
According to this article (see also this Times editorial), Gov. Schwarzenegger recently vetoed a bill that would allow nonprofits to distribute condoms in prisons. (He claimed it would conflict with the law against sexual contact between inmates.) It seems he did something similar two years ago. There are some condom distributions in CA prisons, and Schwarzenegger authorized one new, small-scale pilot program, but he derailed the state legislature's decision to make such distributions a statewide reality.
I hope the cruelty and stupidity of this decision speak for themselves, but I'll make a few comments to encourage further thought, because a decision this bad needs to be understood as well as denounced. To try and make (partial) sense of his decision, let me suggest that, in policymaking and debate around HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, there are various gradations of the position that would block direct public health initiatives.
First, there are those who simply disapprove of a particular behavior, be it pre- or extramarital sex, same-gender sex, sex in prisons, or intravenous drug use. It doesn't necessarily lead them to disregard other social issues or form a blanket policy statement.
Then there are those who, through a combination of wishful thinking and manipulation, reach the idea that the health threat posed by risky behaviors might itself be the best deterrent against these behaviors, superior from a moral and public health perspective to interventions that would make those behaviors safer (condom distributions, needle exchanges, HPV vaccinations, etc). They accept arguments to this effect without sufficient critical thought, and neglect contrary evidence.
Then there are those who publicly espouse this best-of-both-worlds notion, but whose prolonged refusal to engage with the evidence leads one to suspect that either (a) they no longer feel compassion for victims of infection from their designated 'deviant' population groups, or (b) they feel that infection's (supposed) role in discrediting and deterring 'deviant' behavior outweighs its human costs (so, in a sense, they ally themselves with the epidemic).
Finally, at the far end you have those who feel only contempt for 'deviants', and openly exult in public health crises which they see as just punishment.
But can we explain Schwarzenegger's behavior as occupying a point along this spectrum? I'm not so sure. As soon as incarceration comes into play, the debate seems to get much more complex (i.e., crazier). Are these notions of morality and deterrence even operative in the (supposedly kinda-socially-liberal) Governor's decision? Is he offering a feeble cover for the prison industry from the already-widespread recognition that, in many cases, they fail to protect their inmates from sexual coercion? (For a discussion of the state of available statistics on prison rape see this Human Rights Watch page.) Or is he merely bowing to the time-honored tradition of abusing prisoners?
I would love to hear what others think, because I can't decide the issue myself. All that's clear to me is that he's taken citizens in a position of enforced vulnerability, who are contracting HIV at eight times the rate outside prison, and cut off one of the most important means of protecting them. (I don't believe the state was even asked to pay for the condoms....!)
Meanwhile--Governor Schwarzenegger, withdraw your veto!