Thursday, July 10, 2014

The ‘Oracle of San Quentin’: Stock Tips From the C-block

From MarketWatch:

 Curtis Carroll, with some of the newspaper clippings he relies on to make stock picks. 
Every day, Curtis Carroll dons blue, state-issue jail garb. Every night, he sleeps in a cement cell. At 35 years old, he has spent his entire adulthood behind bars, and there’s a possibility he’ll never leave: He’s serving a sentence of 54 years to life, for murder. 

Among the inmates in California’s sprawling San Quentin State Prison, Carroll’s violent past is ordinary—but his present is anything but. In a place where physical toughness is the main way to earn respect, Carroll has built a following among his fellow prisoners by teaching them how to stay out of debt, draw up a budget—and pick stocks. 

His friends call him “Wall Street.” In prison, that’s a compliment. 

“From what I hear, I’m one of a kind,” he tells me when I meet him for an interview. A fast-talking man with a swagger befitting an A-list celebrity, Carroll greets me with an assured nod from behind black aviator sunglasses. Trim, short and clean-cut, he looks a decade younger than his years. “There is not a lot of people who’ve been doing what I’ve been doing, created what I’ve created,” he says. 

That’s certainly true. At a time when financial literacy is barely taught even outside of prison, the classes Carroll conducts for fellow inmates represent an unusual effort to reach an undereducated population. (See also: What prison inmates learn about money.

It’s an outcome that’s all the more unlikely because Carroll, by his own account, was illiterate when he got to prison. Now, he says, he reads The Wall Street Journal every day. He invokes Warren Buffett in conversation as one of his idols—and in homage to Buffett, one prison official calls Carroll “the Oracle of San Quentin.” 

Carroll’s interest in investing goes back more than a decade, but his influence has grown since 2012, when he was transferred to this prison, a huge facility that hosts one of the country’s biggest prison education programs. Here, his experience and confidence have helped him turn dozens of people into “clients” who take his advice—including non-inmates who volunteer at the prison.

Getty Images
San Quentin State Prison in California, where Carroll is teaching finance and stock-picking skills to fellow inmates while serving a sentence of 54 years to life.
“Everything he says is stuff you hear” from other financial talking heads, says Tom De Martini, an insurance agent who took classes from Carroll while volunteering. “But…to be doing it behind prison walls, it’s so impressive.” Another volunteer, photography professor Nigel Poor, says she invested in stocks for the first time after hearing Carroll. “I am 50; I wish someone had taught me this when I was 20,” Poor says. Fellow inmate Troy Williams says that most books about investing are “geared towards people with money,” but Carroll “has strategies for everyday, common people.” 

Carroll says his lessons are designed to help his fellow inmates avoid hopelessness and crime. They’re also bucking a national trend: A Rand Corp. study published last year found that budget cuts were depressing the number of courses and students in many prison programs. 

But Carroll is quick to add that his interests aren’t simply academic, or altruistic. “I go where the money goes—it’s always been that way,” he says; and the money for him, these days, is in stocks....MORE