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Diagram of financial investment trends with charts and stock numbers showing profits and losses over time dynamically
Photo by KanawatTH on iStock

Welcome to the Michigan Correctional Facilities Investor’s Club. We do not officially exist. 

You can find us in the dayroom when you see copies of The Wall Street Journal and Investor’s Business Daily laying about and hear CNBC blaring on the television. Approach with questions. You can ask a former doctor his opinions on the effects of an interest rate change on tech stocks. Talk to a former gangster about the effects of politics and changing laws on legal marijuana stocks. Or discuss with a former CEO options strategies such as the iron condor and diagonal spread

We are a group of men — about 15 have been involved over the last four years — interested in trading in some of our other hustles and life pursuits to study the stock market. Some of us paper trade, or build so-called “fantasy portfolios,” and some of us interact with loved ones who invest actual money. For example, I signed over my pandemic stimulus check to my dad, and he invested it according to my recommendations. We have varying degrees of success — in my case, I invested the stimulus money in Nvidia, an artificial intelligence company, and essentially doubled its value. 

But raking in the dough is not the only reason we do this. Some of us will have lives beyond these bars, and we will need skills — and determination — to successfully reenter society.

I’m never going to get a job with a brokerage firm. In fact, I’m legally barred from it due to my felony conviction. And I’ve never actually had a conversation with an active broker. In order to invest, I’ve had to interact through an intermediary, like my dad. I’ve never personally been online to find stock charts — I have to have someone do that for me too. To inform my investing recommendations, I study week-old, second-hand copies of the major business papers, and one single minute-by-minute source of stock quotes on CNBC, a channel paid for through surcharges on our commissary. 

When I arrived at prison at age 15, I knew nothing about numbers. And yet I helped a friend quadruple the value of her investments in three months in 2020 (mainly by predicting the rebound of the market after it was tanked by COVID-19). The value of the recommendations I have made to my family members between 2020 and 2022 has averaged around a 40% to 50% increase within a year (without ever looking at meme stocks). 

I’ve only met one man in here who was an actual broker on the outside (incarcerated for unrelated charges). I also know some other incarcerated people who were successful traders. I learned as much as I could from them, but most of us in the Investor’s Club have no experience at all. 

Instead, with a bit of guidance and book recommendations from those who have known success we devour everything we can on the subject, from introductions to the market to advanced options-trading strategies. We research concepts of market analysis, voraciously study global market dynamics (germanium processing, for example, infrastructure bills, or the way conflict in Côte d’Ivoire affects cocoa prices and more). 

Some men applied their knowledge of past hustles to understand how the economy functions. For instance, I’ve known drug dealers who understand supply and demand in the commodities market, describing how the price of the cocaine they once sold would fluctuate depending on whether the market was “flooded” or “dry.” Meanwhile, I focused on research and an understanding of psychology and sociology, which I’ve developed through study — and life experience. 

When I first entered prison, I stood 5-foot-5 and weighed 125 pounds. Prison is where I learned to interact with people and to survive in a strange, hostile and violent environment. To avoid getting beaten up, I needed to learn how to perceive others’ emotions, differentiate bluster from genuine threats and constantly analyze shifting, unpredictable situations. These skills have translated well into the constantly moving world of investing.

There are different levels of access to the market for prisoners. Some men have used illegally smuggled cellphones to directly invest via E-Trade or Robinhood (I know of one man who was caught doing so a few years back). Some bark their wishes to “buy” or “sell” over the prison phone. But most of us, including myself, are stuck making recommendations to loved ones who may or may not listen. 

Being a member of the Investment Club isn’t just about financial gain. Yes, many of us certainly want to make it big someday. But for the moment we remain limited in what we can do. For many of us, this is a way to take control of our lives and futures and to learn legal avenues to success, ones we can become comfortable with and confident in even while incarcerated. 

For many guys inside here, crime seemed to pay well when they were younger; but after many years in prison they want a route to success that isn’t fraught with severe consequences, like lengthy prison sentences. For others, stock stats are simply more interesting than following basketball or football stats. 

Many of us who follow the market have found ways to give back to those we care about. And some individuals have been able to earn back the respect of their family and friends by consistently recommending investments that perform well. Of those of us who have helped with investing or have loved ones who invest on their recommendations, there is usually a period of trust-building that must occur. The person on the outside must come to understand that this is not just some fluke, scam or pie-in-the-sky dream. 

I don’t expect to ever be rich. I can’t say that I’ve significantly changed anyone’s life by sharing my investment research, even if I have made more than one person’s bank account much larger. But a direct result of being a member of the Investment Club is that I have developed confidence in my ability to create a future for myself. 

I came to prison as a child with an eighth-grade education. I’m now a 33-year-old man. There are still some years left on my sentence. But today I know what it will take to be successful when I am out, and I have the determination to do so. 

That is the real investment.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Dankovich is a writer incarcerated in Michigan.