Curtis Carroll: What Can You Learn About Life When You Have A Life Sentence? When Curtis Carroll was sentenced to life in prison, he decided to teach himself the ins and outs of the stock market. Today, he advocates for teaching others the importance of financial literacy.
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Curtis Carroll: What Can You Learn About Life When You Have A Life Sentence?

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Curtis Carroll: What Can You Learn About Life When You Have A Life Sentence?

Curtis Carroll: What Can You Learn About Life When You Have A Life Sentence?

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(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

CURTIS CARROLL: Hello?

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

Hi, Curt - is it Curtis? It's Guy Raz. I'm the host of the show.

I'm Guy Raz.

CARROLL: How are you doing, man? This is - been waiting to talk to you for about a week now.

RAZ: Oh, wow. Thank you so much for doing this.

CARROLL: My pleasure. My pleasure. Thank you for asking.

RAZ: And on the show today - ideas about the wisdom we gain from sometimes unexpected places.

Can you please introduce yourself?

CARROLL: So my name is Curtis Carroll, but everybody calls me Wall Street for the most part.

RAZ: And tell me where you are right now.

CARROLL: I am in Pelican Bay State Prison.

RAZ: How old were you when you were - when you were sentenced to prison?

CARROLL: I was 17 years old.

RAZ: And how old are you now?

CARROLL: I'm 41 - 41 now.

RAZ: Curtis, I mean, you were a boy, I mean, you were a child when you were sentenced to life in prison. I guess you were part of a robbery and somebody was murdered. But I have to imagine now, at the age of 41, you probably don't even recognize that 17-year-old boy that you were. You probably don't even know who that was.

CARROLL: It's interesting because that's true, right? On one part, I can't imagine me doing the things that I've done then. But I've never forgotten what life was for me as growing up as a teenager in Oakland, Calif., you know, going through the struggles that I went through. Now, I'm not using that as an excuse, but it did play a big role in the things that I've done.

And, you know, I never really viewed my situation as being anything other than poverty-stricken. I never thought about, you know, we'll get a job one day, have a white picket fence, go to college. You know, that - none of that never even crossed my mind. I mean, I just never even thought about it. And I never seen it before, so far as I was concerned, life was about, you know, trying to make some money. And, you know, criminal activity was the way to do that because I wasn't educated, and you couldn't do it no other way.

RAZ: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CARROLL: That was my life.

RAZ: Curtis Carroll picks up the story at a TED event that happened at his prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CARROLL: The reality was was that I was growing up in the strongest financial nation in the world, the United States of America, while I watched my mother stand in line at a blood bank to sell her blood for $40, just to try to feed her kids. She still has the needle marks on her arms to this day to show for that.

So I never cared about my community. They didn't care about my life. Everybody there was doing what they was doing to take what they wanted - the drug dealers, the robbers, the blood bank. Everybody was taking blood money. So I got mines (ph). By any means necessary, I got mines. And I soon learned that finances in prison rule more than it did on the streets, so I wanted in.

One day, I rushed to grab the sports page of the newspaper so my cellie (ph) could read it to me, and I accidently picked up the business section. And this old man said, hey, youngster, you pick stocks? And I said, what's that? He said, that's the place where white folks keep all their money.

(LAUGHTER)

CARROLL: And it was the first time that I had saw a glimpse of hope, a future. But it was just a glimpse. I mean, how was I supposed to do it? I couldn't read, write or spell. So at 20 years old, I did the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life. I picked up a book. And it was the most agonizing time of my life - trying to learn how to read, the ostracizing from my family, the homies. It was rough, man. It was a struggle. But little did I know I was receiving the greatest gifts I'd ever dreamed of.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So how did you start to sort of learn about stocks? Because for 99% of people, you know, outside of prison, it's complicated, right? It's complicated for me.

CARROLL: (Laughter).

RAZ: So, I mean, how did you sort of start to...

CARROLL: Right. Right. Right.

RAZ: ...To, like, understand how they work? Like, how did you figure that out?

CARROLL: Oh, man, it was a puzzle. So when I started to learn how to read, I became a lot more interested in trying to discover what it was. And so I see the markets how people watch soap operas. It's storylines. So my goal was I prepare everything and research everything by stories, by piecemeal, piecing different articles together.

So, for example, I would see an article that says blue-chip stocks. So I would tear out the article of the paper that said blue-chip, and I will paste that on, like, a vision board. Like, I had made a (unintelligible) cardboard. Then I'll be reading - days later or weeks - whatever - I would see something that says, blue-chip stocks are companies that have - pay large dividends or whatever. And I would take out the dividends.

And so what I was doing was piecing together articles and stories, and that's how I learned about the markets in itself, particularly just the companies (unintelligible) first. And you know, it was just years of me doing it.

RAZ: So what did you think you would do with it? I mean, presumably you were not able to invest stocks, I'm assuming, while you were in prison.

CARROLL: So I have people who invest in the stock market where I decide...

RAZ: Right. Right.

CARROLL: ...Who actually put money in. And I just told them what to buy and what to sell and things like that.

RAZ: Right. OK. And once you started to invest, did you have a plan? Like, did you know what you'd use it for?

CARROLL: So my plan was if I learn about the stock market, I can make money, I can get a lawyer, and I could get out of prison. That's what I thought. You know, after I had lost my trial and all that, you know, I remember my lawyer saying, you know, man, you got railroaded. Basically, you shouldn't have been found guilty of - for this case, you know, if anything - if nothing else, the robbery.

So that was kind of in my head. And I didn't fully believe that I was going to get out of prison, but I believed that the stocks could help me get out. So that was my belief system.

RAZ: I mean, I imagine that there were probably other inmates and maybe even guards who were like - you know, like, hey, Curtis, you know, why are you wasting your time with this stuff, right?

CARROLL: Right. But the stocks made me feel good, right? It made me feel valued.

RAZ: Yeah.

CARROLL: You know, so a part of my life was just always about getting in trouble and, you know, doing things the wrong way. And, you know, when he came to the stocks, the stocks was about structure. It was about discipline. So by studying the stock market, I was learning all these different values that I didn't know that I was learning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CARROLL: Self-worth, knowledge, discipline. I now had an obligation to meet those on the path and help. And it was crazy 'cause I now cared about my community. Wow, imagine that. I cared about my community.

Financial illiteracy is a disease that has crippled minorities in the lower class in our society for generations of generations. And we should be furious about that. Ask yourselves this - how can 50% of the American population be financially illiterate in a nation driven by financial prosperity? Our access to justice, our social status, living conditions, transportation and food are all dependent on money that most people can't manage. It's crazy. It's an epidemic and a bigger danger to public safety than any other issue.

Check this out. A typical incarcerated person would enter the California prison system with no financial education, earn 30 cents an hour, over $800 a year with no real expenses and save no money. Upon his parole, he will be given $200 gate money and told, hey, good luck. Stay out of trouble. Don't come back to prison. With no meaningful preparation or long-term financial plan, what does he do at 60? Get a good job, or go back to the very criminal behavior that led him to prison in the first place?

Incarcerated people need these life skills before we reenter society. You can't have full rehabilitation without these life skills.

RAZ: Curtis, when you eventually get out, you're going to be prepared to reenter a life that you haven't obviously been able to live for 25 years.

CARROLL: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: I mean, it it sounds like this - in this crazy way, this experience of kind of having your freedom taken away from you kind of pushed you to think of what a life with freedom can look like. And this is what it can look like. I mean, you have this body of knowledge now that you can take with you when you leave.

CARROLL: Yeah. Yeah. So let me say this - freedom is a feeling that you feel. It's not something that you have - right? - because, you know, there's many people in the street out in society today that ain't free that's caged mentally, you know? And they got all kind of drama going on and dealing with all kinds of problems and issues.

And I used to perceive freedom as being physical when my body was in society. And I recognized that that's not freedom. That's a part of it, but that's not real freedom. You know, freedom is expression - you know, freedom to be who you are, be your authentic self no matter what situation you're in. And that's a harder place to get to than just getting my physical freedom back.

RAZ: So, Curtis, in your talk, you say that you chose to commit a crime, and you take responsibility for that. And the result has been something that's dramatically affected every aspect of your life, obviously. But, I mean, it seems like you've learned some really profound lessons despite the circumstances that you were born in and the ones you've lived in for the past 20 years.

CARROLL: So let me say this - I want to say prison is not the place for people to come find themselves. Prison is not the place for people to come be educated. The only thing that prison provides for people is one thing and one thing only, and that's time. What you choose to do with that time is purely up to the person that's in prison. I've chosen to use my time wisely like some other people, and a lot of people are not.

RAZ: Yeah.

CARROLL: What I hope that my story - what I hope that my life experiences have will offer young people - people in general, but particularly young people - is that time is something that you can learn that you can use anywhere.

You know, people can say, you know, had you not went to prison, you know, you might've not became the person you are today. Possibly so, but it's sad to think that that's being true, that prison - had to have that happened to me. And so I don't want people to misinterpret that, you know, my life story in prison is somehow good to be helping people, because it's not.

RAZ: Right. Right.

CARROLL: You know, society is where these programs, where are we supposed to be, you know, helping our youth, helping people. And that's part of my goal when I get out of here. You know, I like to think that I've made great use of it by choice, but not every people is going to make that choice. And not every people is going to have the opportunity to make that choice. So I want to say, you know, prison is not the place. Prison is not the place for that.

RAZ: That's Curtis Carroll. He's also known as Wall Street. He's the co-founder of ProjectFEEL. It's a nonprofit dedicated to financial and emotional literacy. By the way, Curtis will be up for parole soon, so he could potentially get out of prison in the next six months. You can see Curtis's full talk at ted.com.

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