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Life Inside

A Lifer’s Retirement Plan

Most of us get out old and broke. Not me.

Rahsaan Thomas is a 44-year-old inmate at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. He has served 15 years of a 15-to-life sentence for 2nd-degree murder, with a 35-year enhancement for using a firearm.

“Someone stole my freaking identity,” I said aloud to the empty cell. Someone free stole my identity – a prisoner’s. According to the piece of mail in my hands, Rahsaan Thomas owed the IRS $5,000, a tax refund that the IRS now wanted back.

I am Rahsaan Thomas, but I’m not the person who filed the tax return or received the five grand. The last time I filed taxes was in 1996, when I was employed as an assistant graphic designer for a theater advertising agency. I lost that job in 1997, and my life spiraled out of control. I didn’t work another legitimate job afterward, and I ended up in prison.

The IRS realized the refund was a mistake after noticing that I hadn’t paid into social security (or whatever FICA is) in over a decade. They maybe should have checked that out before sending out $5,000 to a Riverside, Calif. address where I had never lived.

Then I saw the final line of the letter: It said I also hadn’t worked long enough to receive Social Security benefits. I instantly thought of the horror stories of the men who were freed after enduring decades in prison, only to violate their parole on purpose because they couldn’t make it out in society. Would I become one of those men?

As a lifer, I will not see a parole board until I am 60 years old. How would I be able to survive at that age on the streets? Paroling with only the $200 that the state gives you at the front gate would be a precarious thing. If there was no hope of surviving on the outside, why should I even bother?

The sound of knocking snapped me out of my thoughts and back into the metal world around me. I looked up and saw Askari smiling through the door’s small window. “Hey, it’s me, buddy,” he said. “Aren’t you going to chow?”

Standing up, I grabbed my brass key off the desk, put on my state blue jean jacket and walked the two steps to my door.

California Men’s Colony (CMC) was the only state prison I knew of where they gave level-three inmates our own keys. The guards had the power to override our keys, but they allowed us to let ourselves in and out of the cell, except during “count time” between 4 and 5 p.m., after 9 p.m., and during lockdowns.

Askari stood there in his purple shirt and blue pants stamped CDCR. He was bald and had a neatly outlined gray beard. He had a copy of The Wall Street Journal’s business section, one of many subscriptions to business newspapers that he received in the mail. He was always checking stock prices and looking for new investment opportunities. To him, the latest information was critical.

The walkways to the dining hall cut past the rec fields and a basketball court, though those areas were closed during chow time; now, seagulls had taken over the vacant yard.

“Buddy, what’s up?” Askari asked me suddenly.

“Man, somebody jacked my identification, beat the IRS for $5,000, and now they want me to pay it back. And on top of that, I haven’t worked long enough on the outside to get Social Security. That’s what’s up. I’ll be paroling an old man in debt with no income…”

“I keep telling you to invest in stocks.”

“Yeah, with what?” Askari knew that I only made $28 a month as a teacher’s assistant, and that the state took 55 percent of that for the $10,000 in victim’s restitution they assessed me.

“It’s not what you start with; it’s just about getting started,” he said patiently. “The thing about doing time is that it’s an opportunity to grow wealth slowly.”

But how was investing from prison possible without outside help, which I didn’t have? I had tried it once, after hearing Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll talk about how he was becoming rich while in prison. The Oakland native had come to prison illiterate, and learned to read and trade stocks from his cell. At CMC, he held classes on the benches by the baseball field. He spoke of the need to sacrifice those new sneakers to become wealthy.

Listening to Curtis had motivated me to call my family and tell them to purchase $200 worth of stock in an internet radio company, instead of sending me a package.

But my family wouldn’t do it – they would rather spend that money sending me food. And they were right that receiving special items – Hershey’s Skor’s toffee, chocolate candy bars, Coco Roos cereal, Nike sneakers – made the prison experience easier to deal with, though only in the short run.

“Even if I sacrifice shopping at the canteen and getting packages,” I told Askari, “I don’t have anyone to set up an online account and make the trades.”

Askari looked at me. “You can buy stocks snail mail,” he said. “Through DRIP programs.”

DRIP, he told me, stood for Dividend Reinvestment Program. You enroll by investing the minimum and paying a small fee. After that, you can buy additional shares in $25- or $50-minimum increments, depending on the company’s plan.

Chow that night demonstrated how hard the sacrifice would be. Fellow inmates dressed in drab aprons dumped beef stew over mashed potatoes. The meat tasted like wet rubber. The potatoes tasted like nothing. The small portions were unsatisfying. Every day, I had to supplement what the state provided me to eat with items from the canteen. If it were not for the fact that Top Ramen cost only 25 cents, I couldn’t afford to invest at all.

But, still, I started to save, eating soup now to keep from eating cat food as a senior citizen. I worked five days a week, eight hours a day, tutoring students with mental health issues. Many had head injuries and brain abnormalities that affected their memory. A few would have learning breakthroughs, only to forget what they had been taught when the next lesson came around.

I sat there week after week, helping grown men sound out words for $28 a month, only $12.60 of which I received.

There were temptations everywhere. On hot summer days, after a game of basketball, fellow prisoners would pop open cans of soda that they had purchased from the mini-canteen right there on the yard. Some would even stand on the sidelines eating a pint of ice cream. Many inmates made burritos on the weekends from beef summer sausages, cheddar cheese from a squeeze bottle, jalapenos, refried beans, rice and tortillas.

I had the money to buy all of it, but I wasn’t spending it. I even came up with a motto: “I’m not financing my own incarceration.” I threw my inmate account statements away without looking at them.

Finally, after seven months, I had enough to pay the $15 fee and become a $100 shareholder of Trust Co. Bank in New York. I filled out the trust withdrawal slip along with a DRIP application, and took it to my counselor. (A “counselor,” in prison, is not what it sounds like. They are really just overseers of paperwork.)

The lady verified that I’m me, signed my form, and said she’d process my request. I had purchased about 16 shares at $6.00 each. A few weeks later, the accounting department would send the money from my inmate account to a registered transfer agent, who would process my enrollment into the DRIP for the company I had chosen.

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About a month later, I received a receipt, but 90 days after that, I hadn’t made any progress. The value of my stock had dropped to $5.00 a share, and my dividend payment was only 96 cents.

This time, I was knocking on Askari’s door.

“Hey, buddy,” he said, after sliding his door open.

“The stock is down,” I said.

“So buy more,” he said. “Stock prices go up and down all the time. We don’t care as long as they still pay a dividend... Say you bought 100 shares at $7.00, then the stock price goes down and you buy another 100 at $5.00. That means your stake of 200 shares cost you $6.00 each. Now all the company has to do is go above $6.00 and you’re in the profit zone instead of needing it to rise back to $7.00.”

I was listening to Askari, but I couldn’t hear him. I didn’t sacrifice for months to lose money. It felt like I had run a marathon for a pat on the back. Instead of buying more stock, I bought some groceries. I would’ve sold the stock altogether if it weren’t for the fees. Thanks a lot, Askari, I thought.

Two years later, just as I was about to transfer to San Quentin State Prison, the stock price rose to $7.00 a share. My original $100 investment was now worth $130. As for Askari, who had not stopped investing in the stock, he had dividend checks coming in that paid for $100 worth of canteen – every single month.

From that day on, I started sending the minimum $25 whenever I could. When the stock reached the level at which the dividend could pay for another share, I looked for more companies to invest in: American Apparel, Vanguard Energy Fund. And I gave myself rewards along the way. I bought a $3.00 ice cream – lately it’s the red velvet flavor – every time I reached a pre-set goal.

One day, I ran into a grumpy old man named Todd who lives on the third tier in San Quentin’s North Block. He has a life sentence with a slim chance of parole. I told him that he might want to start taking classes and programs, so that the board would let him out.

“Let me out?” he said, staring at me now with a hopelessness even I had never felt. “The best thing they could do is leave me in prison. I’m 70 years old. My family is dead. I have no way to survive.”

I tried to think of a hopeful thing to tell him. But I could think of nothing to say.

I walked away with mixed feelings. I felt sorry and wrong for reminding Todd of his sad position by mentioning elderly parole. And I felt guilty for not telling Todd about investment. I don’t know if he had enough time left to build a portfolio, but I know I failed to give him that option. I wondered if I had failed Todd as miserably as the system that had incarcerated him for so long that staying in prison was now what he preferred.

But then again, I was relieved that my own investments were coming along so nicely. I no longer feared being released old and broke, because I am getting a head start from the inside.

The irony of Todd’s plight, then, is that it encourages me. It reminds me to keep sacrificing to invest, because poverty is another form of imprisonment. Now, unlike so many of my peers, I may truly be free whenever they let me out.