Coss Marte has put in his time. After building an LES cocaine empire by the age of twenty two, Coss was incarcerated by twenty four. Between a spine-tingling experience in solitary confinement and the camaraderie he developed with his fellow inmates, Coss found a new path through life: fitness. Back on the outside, Coss returned to his old block with a mission: taking the stark, minimalist workout routines he learned in jail and bringing them to masses, while giving back to one of the least served communities of our time: the incarcerated.
CONVICTS caught up with Coss in the LES and got his word on his past, his conversion experience in solitary, and the importance of second chances.
Hey man. To start, can you tell us who you are?
My name is Coss Marte and I am the founder and CEO of ConBody, a prison style boot camp where we hire formerly incarcerated individuals to teach our fitness classes.
Right on. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in this neighborhood in the Lower East Side. It was a totally different neighborhood, very drug infested neighborhood. Every ten steps you took you’d see a heroin needle on the ground and on the corner of this building I lived at there would be fifty heroin addicts going up and down the building. You would see drugs coming out windows; it was just a crazy war zone. Cops didn’t really pass through here, it was insane.
It’s so crazy to hear stories about the way New York used to be. What led you into dealing?
Growing up, there were some financial issues. I wanted to be rich by any means necessary and the first opportunity I received was through the world of drugs. I started dealing and messing around at eleven and from there it just started escalating. By the age of nineteen, I was making over two million dollars a year. I had a whole cocaine operation which was insane.
That’s wild. What were those times like?
Every time I stepped out of my door there was somebody asking me for drugs. I was just fulfilling their demand. It was crazy. Literally, I would walk with my mom around the block and people would call me across the street. My mom would go inside a store and I would make a drug sale right there. Or there would be people needing a hit and didn’t have the money, I had people grabbing my leg literally on the ground in the streets, screaming, “please help me.” It was just another world.
How did that lifestyle come to an end?
At twenty-three, I got arrested. Basically, they caught us with a lot of drugs, a lot of money. They took all my cars, took everything away. The federal agents found me in a stash house in the Bronx. We had twenty people working for us. I basically changed the way we sold drugs. I made 10,000 business cards and gave them out to every young professional that I knew: lawyers, doctors, judges, you name it, all these people used and I was hustling for them. It got so crazy that we got infiltrated and tapped by federal agents, they caught us and I was sentenced seven years in prison. When I was sentenced to seven years in prison I was actually happy, I was facing fifteen to life because it was my third felony. I had been in and out of jail since I was thirteen so going inside the system was like another home. A few officers that said “hi” to me or said “welcome back”. It was just adapting to that prison culture again.
Did you think you were going to spend your whole life selling drugs?
I never thought that I was gonna be selling drugs for a very long time. It just happened, it was part of the culture. I don’t know what everybody did around here, everybody who was in school and knew I could get it and it was just like a supply and demand type of thing. I always thought about starting a business on the side. My partner and I in the drug world started a fake real estate company trying to launder the money and do crazy stuff. It didn’t work.
Talk a bit about jail.
Jail is definitely not a positive experience. It is probably one of the worst places you could be. The biggest thing that hit me was that my son was born and about a year and a half after I went in. That hit me hard cause he wasn’t born asking for his dad to be incarcerated. I would see him on the visit and he would cry and throw these tantrums and tell officers “Let my daddy go!” It was hard to watch and seeing him trying to teach him his ABC’s over a jail payphone. it’s not what a father should be doing.
Talk about getting sent to solitary confinement?
I had about two months to go [before] home. This officer placed me on the wall and started searching me and I felt he was touching me in inappropriate places and I moved my body and as soon as I moved my body he punched me behind my head and said “don’t fuck with me”. When I turned around he pressed his button on his walkie talkie that sets the whole alarm for the prison off. Every inmate drops on the ground, about a dozen officers came to the scene and beat the crap out of me with batons, shackled me up and stuck me in solitary confinement.
What happened then?
Because of that, I faced three more years in prison. I was devastated. In the cell, they have these slots where they feed you the food. I hear that opening and they pass me paper, envelope, and I take it and I start writing a letter out to my family letting them know about the situation, trying to get me out of this, contact lawyers, get help. I close the letter and I realize that I didn’t have a stamp to send out this letter with, so I was even going more crazy that I couldn’t communicate with nobody. I couldn’t talk to anybody. It was complete silence.
Describe solitary a bit for us.
Solitary is a hot place. There is no fan or AC. There are bugs all over your bed, I literally started like having like spider races in my cell. At first I was disgusted and then they became my friends: it was the only entertainment I could have. Literally, you start looking at the cracks on the wall and they start turning into figurines. Your mind just starts messing with you. It is like timeout. Everybody hated timeout when you were kids, imagine being there for months and years at a time. One of my trainers here spent seven years in solitary: imagine spending all that time in a cell. It is not a beautiful place. You get two showers a week, you’re burning and sweating, the sink was literally pouring out green stuff. I would take the little milk carton they would give me for breakfast in the morning and stick it in the toilet and drink it. It is what it is.
What happened to you in there?
While I was there I was going crazy. A couple days later my sister, who is like Mother Teresa’s child, super religious, tells me to read Psalm 91 from the Bible. I have never read the Bible, I didn’t really believe in it. The Bible she gave me was sitting in a corner in my cell. That’s all I could carry around while I was in solitary.I had this Bible she gave me and she told me to read. I was like “Fuck no, I don’t believe in that” and I took her letter and I threw it, literally threw it in the corner of my cell and laid back down. I was sitting there for a couple days not doing anything just like waiting and counting. Finally, I did decide to pick up the Bible and I turned to Psalm 91, the pages she told me to read, and as soon as I started reading, a stamp fell out of my Bible and it was the stamp I needed to send out this letter with. Chills ran down my body right away, I felt there was something new in myself. From that point, I started reading the Bible front to back. I realized what I was doing was really wrong and for the first time. I felt like I was destroying not only my son, my family, but I felt so much regret for selling drugs to these people; I started realizing these people had families as well. I started praying, I asked God, “how can I give back to society?” Before then, I was already helping these inmates in the prison yard workout and get fit, and I said this is the way I want to give back. I wrote out my whole program workout routine in that prison cell, just using the side of my Bible, these long sheets of legal file paper and wrote like Sunday to Monday schedule and said this is what I’m going to do. Literally, I came home and followed that schedule to the tee. I enclosed it and came home and starting doing it. I was released a year later, but that situation was my turning point.
How did you get into fitness in prison?
Fitness in prison, it’s a big thing. All you have to do is just like work out or read books and that’s basically what you do all day. I started progressively just running and running and running. People used to call me fat Forrest Gump. All these guys would make fun of me and I would run with my middle finger up cause I was like ‘Fuck you, I’m doing this for me.’ I was the only person running in the yard. Eventually, I lost all that weight and there was one day I was sitting there and this guy comes up to me and he’s like “I want to start working out with you.” He was 320 lbs and I was like, “I used to look like you” and he was like, “get the fuck out of here,” and I was like, “yeah that was me.” So he started running with me and we started working out. Two of his friends started working out with us and then we started doing these group workouts. I took all those routines I learned from the yard and meshed them together and made a program. I gained a camaraderie with the guys in there. It was not until I landed in that prison cell that I had a revelation that fitness was what I wanted to do.
Talk about how that flowered into ConBody?
I knew I wanted to do like a prison style boot camp when I came home and market it that way. I started doing it in the local park across the street. My first client was my mom, and then I started gathering more people. Nobody wanted to rent to us, all the leases. When you apply for a lease or retail spot, the application asks if you have ever been convicted of a felony. Everytime I said yes, I was denied. That was something I had to face: having that door shut in my face all the time. But there was group I was involved with, this Bible study group, and every time I would go in there I would complain. I’d be like “These people don’t want to give me a second chance” ‘til finally, this lady was like “I’m tired of you complaining. I’m in real estate, I’m gonna find you a location.” She showed me this spot and it was this dead space. None of these walls were up. It was like a dungeon, the toilet was on its side, all messed up. I was like, “I love it.” It was perfect, I was surprised that I ended up right on the same corner where I sold drugs, where I got locked, and where I had business at.
That must be a wild full circular experience?
Yeah, I mean, I get flashbacks all the time. I had fun in the streets, doing dumb kid shit, throwing eggs off the roof. They were just funny times and I see a few of the guys I used to hang out with on this corner and reminisce sometimes but it is motivating that I’m back here giving back to the community. I still see people I grew up with and who are still messing around. It gives them hope. In the beginning I was telling these guys “Yo, I’m doing this in the park.” They started looking at me like I was crazy. I came from making millions of dollars on the streets to teaching classes in the park, and they’re looking at me like I’m crazy. I was like “This is going to blow up, trust me.” They didn’t believe me till they’d seen it and they were like, “Wow, this is crazy, you really did something. It is possible to leave this world.”
Talk about the larger goals for ConBody.
I felt the pain when I came home and didn’t know what was gonna come about. I just kept working and everything came into play. As I started constructing my business plan, I really wanted to break down the stereotypes between the professional world and formerly incarcerated people, by just having people simply interact. One guy did ten years in prison and when you come in here he is the nicest person in the world. We’ve got a lady who did twenty years in prison, she went in at sixteen and came out at thirty-eight, just came out nine months ago. It’s a whole new world for her but everyday she’s there with a smile greeting people. We are portraying the fact that we are human beings, we are just real regular people. We want to wake up, we want an opportunity, we want to work, and sleep. That is all we want. What’s more to ask for?
What does the stigma come from?
Society believes that we should be known for the worst things that we have ever done. Once you’ve been stamped, you have that felony around forever. I feel like everybody has committed a mistake. Most people smoke weed, drank and drove or got in the vehicle with somebody with something and you could have landed in our shoes too. The system is messed up. We get caught but we are still regular people. When I go into the system or go back into the prison system and speak to the guys and train them, they find hope. That’s all that is really missing in prison: hope. A lot of people ask why I care about this population? I tell them, “Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s neighbor. Do you want this person coming home and committing another crime next to you or do you want this person rehabilitated and helping out society?” I feel like everybody’s got a part to play in this world and solving this prison system.
Right on man. Do you have advice for people just coming out of the prison system?
There will be hard times and there will be things that may make you want you to revert back to what you were doing but if you trust that good path, you will receive so many good things back. By staying on a trustworthy faithful path of doing the right thing day in and day out, I have received a lot. That is my advice for those people in the system.
Right on. Thanks Coss and best of luck with everything.