Curtis Carroll discovered the stock market in prison. Through friends and family on the outside, he invests from San Quentin State Prison in Northern California, and he's also an informal financial adviser to fellow inmates and correctional officers. Everyone in prison calls him Wall Street.
"I couldn't believe that this kind of access to this type of money could be accessible to anybody. Everybody should do it. And it's legal!" he says.
He pores over financial news: the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes. Business is like a soap opera, he says, and he's always trying to anticipate what will happen next. "I like to know what the CEO's doing," he says. "I like to know who's in trouble."
Carroll, 37, taught himself to read in prison. Raised in Oakland, Calif., he spent most of his youth homeless. His mother and grandmother were addicted to crack. He and his brother spent most of their time roaming the streets. Carroll didn't know how to read or write, so he paid other kids to do his homework. He hated school, and in his early teens, he fell into a gang and began committing crimes. At age 17, he entered the prison system. He's been in prison for 20 years, doing a sentence of 54 to life for his part in a robbery attempt that ended in a murder.
One day Carroll stumbled on the financial section of the newspaper thinking it was the sports section, which his cellmate used to read to him. Another inmate asked him if he played the stocks.
"I had never heard the word before," says Carroll. "He explained to me how it works and said, 'This is where white people keep their money.' When he said that I said, 'Whoa, I think I stumbled across something here.' "
Carroll began with small investments known as penny stocks, which were high risk but successful enough to allow him to keep investing. He says he taught himself to read by looking at candy wrappers and clothing logos, and once he got the hang of it, he started to read financial stories. A former cellmate says he would study his stocks all night and into the early hours of the morning. And he often writes out stock predictions, taping them to the wall in an envelope, dating them and then checking back later to see how well he did.
Every Thursday night, Wall Street and a group of volunteers from outside the prison teach the men some of the principles of sound personal finance, stock investments, retirement and how to manage the money they do have — things most of the inmates have had no training in. Wall Street tells his theories to the assembled group. "There's four steps," he says. "Every person on this planet that has made money has mastered these four simple steps: savings, cost control, borrowing prudently and diversification."
The group is called Freeman Capital, and he co-founded it with fellow inmate Troy Williams. Williams says about 70 people attend the class each week.
Many of the prisoners serve decades-long sentences, and when they are released, they are given $200 and little to no knowledge of financial resources such as retirement funds.
"It's like, 'Good luck. We're gonna pray for you. Stay out of prison,' " says Williams, who is on parole from San Quentin State Prison after serving a life sentence. "Who do you want coming home? Do you want the animal that's been caged away for years that's the same badass gang-banger that he was when he went to prison? Or do you want somebody that's coming home thinking differently?"
Carroll doesn't have access to a computer or the Internet, so he calls his family members to check the closing prices for the day, and he tells them what to buy.
"I'm in prison, but I'm on just the same playing field as Warren Buffett," Carroll says. "I can pick the exact same companies. I can't buy as many shares, but technically we're just the same."
Word of Wall Street has leaked outside San Quentin. Small, community-based investment clubs have been reading about him online and are now seeking out his financial counsel, drawn to his strategies and his story. Wall Street, they say, has time they don't to study the market and get wise about money.
"Overall, the goal is to get the money to give it back to the community," Carroll says. "When I look at how Bill Gates and Warren Buffett give 90 percent of their wealth away, I thought, what better way than to go back and help the things I've destroyed?"
At the end of his financial literacy lessons, he assigns his fellow inmates some homework: Call home and ask family members about their long-term financial plans.
"I try to reiterate to the men that I'm not teaching you some for-sure plan. I'm just teaching you to plan," Carroll says. "It's fine to take the loss. I mean, it happens. You just know that it doesn't have to lead back into whatever you was doing, drugs or alcohol or crime or gangs.'
This piece was produced in collaboration with Life of the Law, a group of journalists, editors, producers and scholars working together to produce stories about the law.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At this point in MORNING EDITION, we typically bring you the day's top news. This morning - something different. The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, are always searching out the hidden and the overlooked, stories and perspectives we might not otherwise hear. Today, they take us to San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco. There they met a man serving a sentence of 54 years to life for his part in a robbery attempt that ended in murder. That was two decades ago. He was 17 at the time. Now let's follow The Kitchen Sisters into the world of this prisoner who became such a whiz at buying and selling stocks, everyone inside calls him Wall Street.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CURTIS CARROLL: I couldn't believe that this kind of access to this type of money could be accessible to anybody. Everybody should do it, and it's legal. Business to me is like watching a soap opera, always trying to anticipate what's happening. I'm excited when I get the newspaper - can't wait to get home to read. And I probably read about 500, 600 articles a week - Wall Street Journal, the USA Today, Forbes, FastTrack, Entertainment Weekly.
I like to know what the CEOs doing. I like to know who's in trouble.
Once I read the articles and memorize certain content that I need, I create stories.
NANCY MULLANE: He sits in this very small room at a desk, like one of those old school desks that has a big opening where you put your books. He's made it like an office. Nobody sits at that desk but Wall Street. He invests in stocks from inside San Quentin Prison. And he helps other people. He's their financial adviser. He's called Wall Street inside the prison. Everyone knows him that way.
DAVIA NELSON, BYLINE: We first heard about Wall Street through a friend who teaches yoga at the prison - hatha yoga - weekly inside San Quentin. Curtis Carroll, aka Wall Street, grew up in Oakland, mostly homeless. His mother was addicted to crack, his grandmother, too. Curtis and his brother ran the streets.
NIKKI SILVA, BYLINE: Curtis hated school, fell in with a gang, paid other kids to do his homework. His first crime at 11 or 12 was robbing a mail truck with his brother. Someone told him the welfare checks were being delivered that day in his neighborhood. The envelopes were color-coded, they said, so those were the ones they looked for and stole.
CARROLL: My number one rule is don't get what?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Greedy.
CARROLL: Don't get greedy. Criminals are greedy by nature. We want it all, all the time.
TROY WILLIAMS: Wall Street came inside the prison system at 17 years old. He was illiterate, didn't know how to read or write. One day, he stumbled upon the financial section of the newspaper, thought it was the sports section. He used to have his cellie read it to him. This guy asked, what are you doing with that financial section? You don't know nothing about that.
CARROLL: I was like, what's that? And the guy asked me if I played stocks and I had never even heard the word before. He told me - he said, you know, this is where white people keep their money. And when he said that, I was like, whoa, like, I stumbled across something here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MULLANE: Is there a regulation that a prisoner cannot invest in the stock market? Not that I know of. I'm Nancy Mullane, producer of "Life Of The Law" and reporter on prisons. Wall Street feels that he is a natural. He was made to do this.
TOM DEMARTINI: Everybody knows Wall Street - everybody. They seek his advice out. He pins up on the wall all his picks. You'll see the COs - the correctional officers - go in, and they'll be writing stuff down. A lot of sergeants talk to him about it.
MULLANE: He makes predictions, tapes them to the wall in an envelope, dated, and they've checked to see how well he had done. It was like a game they all played.
CARROLL: If you buy a thousand shares, every 10 cent hike in the price is how much?
WILLIAMS: My name is Troy Williams. I just paroled from San Quentin State Prison after serving a life sentence. We had started a financial literacy group prior to me leaving prison called Freeman Capital. Right now, Wall Street is the CEO of that organization on the inside. He would teach the stock program. That's his realm.
CARROLL: There's four steps. Every person on this planet that has made money has mastered these four simple steps.
WILLIAMS: We easily...
WILLIAMS: ...Have about 70 people in our class a week.
CARROLL: Cost control.
WILLIAMS: We teach the men personal finance...
CARROLL: Borrowing prudently.
WILLIAMS: ...About stock investments...
WILLIAMS: ...Retirement and how to manage their money.
CARROLL: That's it.
WILLIAMS: You got a lot of older guys at San Quentin. I myself pushing 50. You know, a guy getting out who hasn't invested anything into his retirement at all, what is this guy going to do? Half the prison guards don't know who's managing their retirement fund. It's just somewhere in La La Land, (ph) and it's being taking care of.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NELSON: The first time we came to San Quentin, the prison was covered in fog. We parked, and the woman next to us looked over, rolled her eyes and said, fog line, good luck getting in. San Quentin, just north of Golden Gate Bridge, is right on the fog path that famously shrouds San Francisco - perfect conditions for an escape, the passing of contraband, the procurement of a weapon. Prisoners are kept in their cells; visitors kept out. It's the Bay Area, where fog and eccentrics and do-gooders pour into every nook and cranny of the region, including San Quentin.
SILVA: For two-and-a-half hours, we sat on a bench outside the prison with all the others who couldn't get in that morning - the Mormon guy who goes in to talk to the inmates on death row each week, the volunteer at the San Quentin Museum who oversees their historical artifacts, including a cigar box full of tiny nooses made by the last hangman at the prison, the woman sitting nervously, waiting for her husband to be released after 15 years. We waited for the fog to lift.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No cellphones. No pocket knives.
CLARENCE LONG: My name is Clarence Long, and I'm in San Quentin Prison. Me and Wall Street were cellies at one time. He used to stay up till 4 in the morning studying the stocks. I'll be sleeping and he'd be up going through his portfolio and reading paper.
CARROLL: You know, when I learned how to read, I started reading candy wrappers and clothing logos. And it was like my mind opened to a whole different thing.
I read articles and memorize content that I need, and I take a vanilla envelope and I file them into a system.
LONG: I used to see him teaching classes on the yard, people sitting in the bleachers listening to him. Once he showed me that you can invest in companies and get dividends, that's what got me started learning about the stock.
MULLANE: The way it works is they have access to a phone. They can call anybody who will accept their call. This is Global Tel Link. You have a call from Wall Street, an inmate at San Quentin.
CARROLL: I don't have any computer time (laughter). I don't have access to be on the Internet. I would call home, say, hey, I want to buy a thousand shares of American Apparel. And when I'm on the phone with them, they'd be on the computer - online brokers, E*TRADE. They'll tell me what the closing prices are for the day, and I will know what to tell them what to buy.
DEMARTINI: Wall Street really has some kind of far out ideas about finance. He doesn't feel that buying and holding long term is going to make it for him. My name's Tom DeMartini, volunteer at San Quentin financial literacy program. Being a prisoner, he's willing to take more risks.
CARROLL: If you talk to a hedge fund manager, he'll tell you we never go with penny stocks because the book says don't go with that, but I never read the books, so I don't know what to fear. I don't grab penny stocks. I grab stocks trading at penny status.
MULLANE: Inmates in California prisons can have jobs. Most inmates make around 15 cents an hour. They don't get all of it. Some of it goes to restitution. Some of it goes to an account for the prison canteen.
CARROLL: When you get that check for 50 bucks, you shouldn't be spending 50 bucks at the canteen. When your family send you $20, that's earned income. And if you're not putting it aside, you're not setting up that nest egg for yourself.
DEMARTINI: There's a lot of guys in there who are trading through their family. There's Sam who's got his daughters that he's teaching. They call every week.
CARROLL: I'm in prison, but I'm on just the same playing field as Warren Buffet. I can pick the exact same companies. I can't buy as many shares, but technically we're just the same.
NELSON: Word of Wall Street has started to leak outside of San Quentin. Small community-based investment clubs have been reading about him online. People living paycheck to paycheck, trying to get a financial toehold, are being drawn to his strategies and his story. Wall Street, they tell us, has time they don't to study the market and get wise about money.
CARROLL: Overall, the goal is to get the money to give it back to the community. When I look at how Bill Gates and Warren Buffet give 90 percent of their wealth away, I thought, what better way to help the things that I've destroyed?
WILLIAMS: These men are coming home, guys who have been locked up for 20-plus years. You're given 200 bucks and it's like, good luck. We're going to pray for you. Stay out of prison. Who do you want coming home? Do you want the animal that's been caged away for years that's the same bad-[expletive] gangbanger that he was when he went to prison, or do you want somebody that's coming home thinking differently?
CARROLL: I try to reiterate to the men that I'm not teaching you some for-sure plan. I'm just teaching you to plan. It's fine to take the loss. I mean, it happens. You just know that it doesn't have to lead back into whatever you was doing - drugs or alcohol or crime or gangs.
So this your homework - call home to your family, and I want you to say, hey, do you have a retirement plan? Do you have a 401(k)? You need to know everything happening with your money.
SILVA: For NPR News, we're The Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva...
NELSON: ...And Davia Nelson.
MONTAGNE: Wall Street was produced by The Kitchen Sisters in collaboration with "Life Of The Law" and mixed by Andrew Roth. You can see Wall Street and get more of his story at npr.org. And you can hear more stories from The Kitchen Sisters on their podcast, Fugitive Waves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.