While it can seem difficult to have sympathy for a drug dealer, it’s important to remember that, for young people in many parts of the U.S., dealing drugs is almost a survival crime. With underfunded, overburdened school systems and few opportunities in sight, it can be difficult for young men and women in inner-city America to resist the lure of the corner dealer’s flashy wealth and his promises for a life beyond abject poverty.
Coss Marte, founder of New York City startup ConBody, knows this situation all too well. Growing up as a first-generation American on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was exposed to drug use at a young age. He and five others shared a small apartment, barely scraping by, but he dreamt of breaking out of poverty. When people asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied that he wanted to be rich, and he idolized the only wealthy folks he knew — the neighborhood dealers with the “freshest clothes and the biggest chains.”
He began selling marijuana at 13 and eventually became the leader of a cocaine-distribution ring in New York. Before the age of 20, he was earning $2 million a year. But that all changed when he turned 23. After being in and out of prison from adolescence into young adulthood, Marte was busted for the last time and sentenced to a total of five years.
When he entered prison, he described himself as being “incredibly overweight” and “plagued with high blood pressure and high cholesterol.” A doctor told him he could die in prison because of his health issues.
“That sparked something in me; I started working out in my cell, using exercises I learned from ex-Marines, correctional officers and fellow inmates,” Marte wrote on the startup’s Kickstarter page. “From then on I knew that my purpose was to give back instead of destroying individuals around me.”
After losing 70 pounds in six months, he shared his workout routines with other inmates and helped 20 to collectively lose over 1,000 pounds.
The ConBody way
“The day I came home [from prison], I started doing bootcamps in the park, even though I was the only one doing them,” Marte told me last week.
We met on a sunny Thursday afternoon in the Lower East Side, a few blocks from his childhood home and down the street from the corners where he used to sling drugs. “I was always looking for the next sale,” Marte said of his past. “I wouldn’t sleep for three days because I was afraid I’d miss something on the street.” But now his old neighborhood is home to a new business venture, and a new lease on life for himself and others in similar situations.
Marte’s vision was simple: lead prison-themed workouts to help people get in shape, while changing their perceptions of formerly incarcerated people. As he kept up with his solo bootcamps in the park, he started spreading the word around the neighborhood about ConBody.
“At first it was a little embarrassing,” he said. “I was known as a person with a lot of money. Now, I was going up to people and pitching them my idea. A lot of them told me it would never work … but I took the risk.
“When those first five people showed up for a workout, I had goosebumps,” he continued, “because it was really happening.”
Marte has since expanded ConBody and hired five full-time trainers, all of them formerly incarcerated, who he pays better than other gyms in the city. The company serves 25 monthly members, along with nearly 4,000 customers who attend drop-in classes. When he’s not teaching classes at ConBody’s studio, Marte leads private workouts at corporate headquarters for companies like Google and Selfie Stick.
As Marte — now enviably in-shape, with kind eyes and a friendly smile — stood in front of the company’s office space, I asked him how it felt to own a business in his old neighborhood.
“It feels good,” he answered unassumingly. “It’s inspiring to see the support that people have given me, even people who are still on the corners. They’ll say, ‘You’re doing it. I don’t know how, but you’re doing it.'”
Despite his success, Marte says he’s far from finished: “I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough yet,” he told me, an excited twinkle in his eye. “There’s still more to come. I feel like I was given this opportunity for a reason, to do something bigger than myself.”
Prison reform is something the United States desperately needs. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses over 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. As of Dec. 31, 2014, more than 1.5 million men and women sat behind bars in federal, state and county prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. To put that in perspective: 1 in 99 American adults are now living behind bars. One in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control, including prison, jail, parole and probation populations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The U.S. prison population has ballooned by 700 percent since 1970, thanks mostly to the advent of the so-called “War on Drugs.” Despite the fact that data increasingly shows the War on Drugs isn’t working — the U.S. spent $1.5 trillion on drug control between 1970 and 2010, while drug addiction rates remained more or less unchanged — men and women continue to be arrested, prosecuted and thrown in jail for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. Those who find themselves in this situation are disproportionately people of color hailing from low-income neighborhoods.
Here is where many in the U.S. will revert to a simple edict: Don’t want the time, don’t do the crime. And while it’s certainly true that the best way to stay out of prison is to avoid breaking the law (although if anyone can say they’ve never done so, I’d like to hear from you), this age-old mantra neglects a crucial factor: Even after someone has served his or her time for the crime committed, their ‘sentence’ often continues long after they leave their cells.
For starters, it can be next to impossible to obtain employment upon release. With the sluggish recovery of the American economy and millions of non-offenders out there looking for work, it’s getting even tougher for former inmates to make ends meet on the outside. In their personal lives, these men and women are often ostracized — viewed as dangerous nuisances, lying in wait to hurt or steal from the ‘innocent civilians’ around them.
As Marte puts it: When ex-cons leave prison, “that’s when the sentence really begins.”
These factors combine to result in staggering recidivism rates and countless lives that are forever changed by teenage drug busts, petty theft and other nonviolent crimes.
Taking it to the next level
It’s a constant effort to change how people view formerly incarcerated people, Marte says, and at times he still faces discrimination and ridicule from people who signed up for his classes without knowing about the prison connection.
Recently, he reached out to give a woman a high-five after a long workout, and she snapped back that she didn’t want him to touch her. “I made a joke about it, but it hurt,” he told me.
Along with the day-to-day fulfillment of giving people jobs, the broader vision of changing public perception around former inmates is what makes Marte strive to keep going. After almost two years of operating ConBody out of rented studio spaces, the team is looking forward to bigger and better things — namely a new space in the Lower East Side with plenty of room for both workouts and community gatherings.
Marte also hopes to hire a new female trainer and expand ConBody’s services to include tech education for his trainers. “When I went into prison, I was still using a flip phone,” he remembered. “When I got out, it was all touchscreens. It can be discouraging. People start to think, ‘I can’t catch up. I’m just a statistic, and I’m going to stay a statistic.’ And I want to change that.”
To make the expansion happen, ConBody launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month. Our editor-in-chief, Jen Boynton, spotted the campaign online and made a contribution. She shared it with me, and I did the same.
I rarely ever back anything on Kickstarter. The infamous potato salad campaign pushed me over the edge when it came to my opinion about how ridiculous the platform has become. But the ConBody message really resonated with me. If you feel the same way, you can contribute to the campaign here.
“This is a place to smash stereotypes,” Marte said of ConBody, “and make young professionals see formerly incarcerated people in a different way — like we’re human.”
You can score a ton of rad perks by contributing to ConBody’s Kickstarter. But I opted for what seemed like the most fun: to have ConBody trainer Sultan Malik bench press me on my visit to New York City. Despite my lack of side-plank skills, I like to think the whole thing was a smashing success. Check it out below: