From Jail to Ex-Con Employer


Coss Marte, founder of the ConBody gym, where the training is based on an exercise routine he developed in prison. (Photo by Mariela Lombard for El Diario)

Three times per week, fitness trainers go to Rikers Island to work with some of the inmates. This has been going on for a year, and the objective is to prepare them to be trainers themselves, when they are released, at the gym that Coss Marte opened in 2016.

“My mission is to work with people who have been incarcerated. I give an opportunity to people who are coming out of jail,” said the 32-year-old Dominican, who is the founder and owner of ConBody gym.

He knows the difficulties endured by people coming out of a jail sentence… or a number of them. He knows because he went through it.

When Marte was 23, he was sentenced to 7 years in prison. His probation ended when he was 29.

Once he got out, no one would hire him. This happened before the Ban the Box law took effect in 2015 in New York, forbidding employers from asking if a job applicant has been convicted of a crime until the last phase of selection for the position.

“I went to Times Square, to Herald Square, to every place where there were stores, but no one would give me a job. I sometimes lied in the application; if I didn’t, they wouldn’t even give me an interview,” he remembers.

Marte was arrested “about 10 times since I was 13, the first couple of times [held] for just a few days,” always for selling marijuana in the Lower East Side (LES), where he grew up.

He was smoking since he was 11. As he got older, people realized that he had access to marijuana and began asking him for it. He really liked making the money; all he wanted in life was “to get rich.”

His experience up until then had been very far from that. His mother came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was pregnant with him. While she had a job making t-shirts, money was scarce at home. “I wanted the things the other kids had – the sneakers, the Game Boy, the music – but we didn’t have money, and that frustrated me. That’s why I wanted to be rich.”

Selling drugs helped him reach that goal.

“No one wants to go to jail and go through that, but I felt that money was coming in and that it was my chance,” he explains.

On one occasion in which Marte had to appear in front of a judge, he changed his baggy jeans and the baseball cap he wore backwards – the way many young men his age do – for a suit and tie. “I noticed that no one would stop me. The police did not even notice me.”

Coss Marte at his gym, located on Broome Street in Manhattan. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

The appearance the outfit gave him masked the illegality of his actions and, with that lesson learned, as soon as he was free again he took the over 20 people who formed his drug dealing network shopping for clothes.

“I was 17. I bought suits, ties, shoes, belts, for everyone.” He also printed business cards. “We sold ‘happy endings,’ ‘party services’…”

After the makeover, and with the gentrification of the neighborhood – which began in 2002 – and the arrival of hipsters, business boomed. Marte went from neighborhood drug dealer to the head of a city-wide network serving professionals who paid well for what they received.

His 24-hour service was so successful that Marte required more than 7 cell phones in order to store the contacts of all his customers, thanks to whom he earned up to $2 million per year. One of those cell phones, which one of the members of his network used to steal Marte’s customers, ended up in the hands of the authorities. That brought the whole operation down.

Marte had never been afraid to fall from that high before. “I thought I was armored. I did not think that the service could fail. It was all really professional.”

But fail it did, and Marte went from owning one of the city’s largest drug dealing services to getting a long sentence at the Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York.

‘Fat Forrest Gump’

Upon arrival, he underwent a medical check-up. The doctors told him that his cholesterol was so high that they did not think he would live more than 5 years. That meant that Marte, who had a young son, would die in jail.

Prison is not a good place to go on a diet, so the 5’8 and 231-pound young man started working out.

At first it was a failure, but one day he went out into the prison’s yard and started running and walking. He was not very good at it, but he ended up creating a routine that allowed him to lose 70 pounds in 6 months. He was so focused that the other inmates called him “Fat Forrest Gump.”

However, one of them asked if he could train with him. That inmate lost 80 pounds. Of course, he brought his friends in, who followed the same routine.

Marte began to understand the discipline required by a fitness trainer.

The decisive moment came when he joined an intense program led by former Marines that would allow him to cut 3 years off his sentence. He had only 2 months to go when he got into a fight with a prison guard who tried to touch him inappropriately. Marte got the worst part of it and ended up in solitary confinement.

“I thought that I was no longer going to be able to get out as quickly as I had promised my son. I almost went mad.”

The only things he was allowed to have in his cell were paper, a pencil, an envelope and a Bible in which he had no interest. He wrote a letter to his family, but it was not until he found a stamp inside the Bible as he was browsing it – looking for a psalm his sister had recommended him to read – that he was able to send it. That moment made him reflect on a faith he did not have before.

“For the first time, I thought that selling drugs was wrong. To me, it was the job through which I made money, which is what I wanted,” he explained. He thought about the inmates he had helped lose weight and began to design an exercise routine to do in jail.

One year later, he was released. Unable to land a job, he started to run in a park in the LES. “I approached women who were wearing yoga pants and explained to them that I had an exercise bootcamp.” That is how he started offering classes in the park. It was 2014, and ConBody was taking its first steps as a company.

But then the cold weather set in, and a new ordeal began as everyone refused to rent Marte a space to teach because of his background. A Buddhist woman in his neighborhood heard his story and offered him to rent her space, located on Broome and Eldridge Streets. “She gave me a chance, and I have not failed her.”

That was in January 2016. The gym recreates the jail cell in which he developed the method, which can also be followed online and already has over 4,000 followers in 20 countries. Marte did not run away from his movie-worthy past but has embraced the present and the future through a business that is only growing.

Classes start early in the morning, and the rooms are usually full. So much so, that Marte opened a second gym in Astor Place only a month ago on the first floor of a building where a NYSC branch is located. In addition, Saks Fifth Avenue approached him during a public demonstration and offered him to open a small gym on the second floor of their Manhattan store for a few months for a wellness program. Marte recreated his small prison cell there and taught his routine. And he will do it again, as his contract – which was originally for a few months – was recently renewed.

Marte now employs 17 people and, except for 4 of them, they have all been in prison. He says that he has been seeing earnings since early this year. “Not a lot, but we are just starting out.”

Even though the project he first funded by collecting $100,000 on Kickstarter is making money, Marte is thinking about having investors in the future. His idea is to open 10 more gyms in the tri-state area. “I have a lot of people calling me from San Francisco and Los Angeles. I may turn it into a franchise, always with ex-convicts, because that is my mission.”

“We all make mistakes”

Since he completed his probation, Coss Marte has not stopped traveling nationally and internationally to participate in conferences about life after prison and lack of opportunity. According to the Center for American Progress, 60 percent of people coming out of jail do not find a job within a year, and many of them end up falling back into crime.

Coss Marte went through the Defy Ventures program to direct his leadership and entrepreneurial skills. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“When I left prison, I went through Defy Ventures, a program that helps people who have been drug dealers of gang leaders to develop their entrepreneurial talent. Their vision is that, because of their management abilities, these people possess many of the talents required by leaders,” said Marte of the program from which he graduated.

The message he wants to deliver in these conferences is that “we are all human beings and are going to make mistakes. Who hasn’t done something stupid in their life? The only difference is that we were picked up and we were raised in neighborhoods in which we did not have many opportunities. Neighborhoods and race make a difference.”

“Many white Americans who come to my class were raised in suburbia, where there were fewer police officers and they were also friendly with them. “Here,” he said, “they would put us up against a wall all the time.”

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