Investment Guru Teaches Financial Literacy While Serving Life Sentence

Mar 21, 2015
Originally published on August 13, 2015 12:54 pm

Prison is perhaps the last place anyone would expect to learn about investing and money management.

But at San Quentin Prison, Curtis Carroll's class is a hot item. The 36-year-old has gained a reputation for his stock-picking prowess. He's even earned the nickname "Wall Street."

Carroll and prison officials have teamed up to create a financial education class for inmates. He starts off the class with a motivational speech.

"Financial education for me has been a lifesaver," he says. "And I have always been passionate about trying to make money. The problem with that money is it was focused in the wrong area — crime."

Carroll is serving up to life in prison for a murder he committed when he was 15. When he first entered, he was illiterate. Then one day Carroll grabbed what he thought was the sports page of a newspaper so his cellmate could read it to him. What he actually picked up was the business section. An older inmate asked Carroll if he knew anything about markets.

"I was like, 'The markets what?' " he says. "And he was like, 'Man, that's the stocks.' And I was really like, 'Man, nah.' "

The inmate then told Carroll that's where white people keep their money.

"I was like, 'Whoa, white folks?' I mean, anywhere white people make their money I want to be there," he says. "You know, growing up in the neighborhood everything was always associated with white prosperity, black not."

Carroll scraped together hundreds of dollars by cashing in unused postage stamps he acquired selling tobacco to prisoners. His first investment was in high-risk penny stocks, making just enough money to keep investing. The whole process motivated him to learn to read. Now, Carroll makes thousands of investments. He maintains notebooks filled with the daily stock price fluctuations of hundreds of companies.

Zak Williams, a graduate of Columbia Business School, says Carroll knows what he's talking about. He's one of several volunteers who assist Carroll with teaching the financial education class. But Williams also says Carroll's strategies are heavily based on short-term, high-risk investments. Instead, William emphasizes the long term.

"We need to take an approach that's enabling for an inmate to not have to take out a loan or a credit card line that might be considered predatory, high interest," Williams says. "We want to prevent that practice in favor of saving and responsibly investing."

San Quentin prison spokesman Sam Robinson says Carroll has learned a valuable life skill.

"Most of the skills that address rehabilitation inside of prisons have to do with vocational trades, anger management and victims-awareness type of education," he says.

The class also touches on the personal component. Prisoners are counseled about their emotional connection to money and the possible pitfalls. Rick Grimes, who is also serving a life sentence, says the lessons are valuable, teaching him to manage his money in prison and also invest money to give to his son.

"I can benefit by helping my family," Grimes says. "It still feels good to give back to my community even though I can't get out right now."

Many of the prisoners in this class will one day get out. And that feeling of being part of a community, and knowing how to manage their finances, could help make their re-entry more successful.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A California prisoner who's serving a life sentence has gained a reputation for stock picking. His name is Curtis Carroll, but many in prison know him as Wall Street. As Emily Green reports from San Francisco, Carroll and prison officials have organized a financial education class for inmates.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Prison is perhaps the last place you would expect to learn about investing and money management, but here at San Quentin, the class is a hot item. And the man behind it - 36-year-old Curtis Carroll. He starts off the class with a motivational speech.

CURTIS CARROLL: Financial education for me has been a life saver. And I've always been passionate about trying to make money. The problem with that passion was that it was focused in the wrong area - crime.

GREEN: Carroll is serving up to life in prison for a murder he committed when he was 15. When he entered prison, he was illiterate. One day he went to grab the sports page of a newspaper, so his cellmate could read it to him. He accidentally picked up the business section instead. An older inmate asked Carroll if he played the markets.

CARROLL: And I was like, the markets, what's that? And he was like, man, that's the stocks, you know? And I was really like, man, no.

GREEN: The inmate then told Carroll that's where white people keep their money.

CARROLL: And I was like, whoa, white folks. I mean, man, you know, anywhere white people keep their money I want to be there. You know, growing up in the neighborhood everything was always associated with white prosperity, black not.

GREEN: Carroll scraped together several hundred dollars by cashing in unused postage stamps he had acquired selling tobacco to prisoners. His first investment was in high-risk penny stocks. He made enough money to keep investing. The whole process motivated him to learn to read. Fast forward to now and Carroll has made thousands of investments. He maintains notebooks filled with the daily stock price fluctuations of hundreds of companies.

ZAK WILLIAMS: Wall Street does know what he's talking about.

GREEN: Zak Williams is a graduate of Columbia Business School and one of several volunteers who teaches a financial education class with Carroll. He says Carroll's strategies are heavy on short-term, high-risk investments. Williams emphasizes the long term.

WILLIAMS: We need to take an approach that's enabling for an inmate to not have to take out a loan or a credit card line that might be considered predatory, high interest. We want to prevent that practice in favor of saving and responsibly investing.

SAM ROBINSON: I think it's a life skill.

GREEN: San Quentin prison spokesman Sam Robinson.

ROBINSON: Most of the skills that address rehabilitation inside of prisons have to do with vocational trades, anger management and victims-awareness type of education.

GREEN: This class also touches on the personal component. Prisoners are counseled about their emotional connection to money and the possible pitfalls. Rick Grimes, who is serving a life sentence, says the lessons are valuable, teaching him to manage his money in prison and also invest money to give to his son.

RICK GRIMES: I can benefit by helping my family. It still feels good to give back to my community, even though I can't get out right now.

GREEN: Many of the prisoners in this class will one day get out, and that feeling of being part of a community and knowing how to manage their finances could help make their reentry successful. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in San Francisco. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this piece, as in a previous Web version, we say Carroll is in prison for a murder committed when he was 15. But court records show he was 17 at the time of the murder.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.