When Coss Marte walks around New York City’s Lower East Side, he can barely take five steps before he’s stopped by someone he knows. People come out of the corner bodega to dap him up, hop off bikes to say hi, or give slight nods as they pass by.
Marte was born and raised on the Lower East Side. He’s seen it go from a crime-ridden neighborhood of abandoned and decrepit buildings to a site of trendy eateries and pricey cocktail bars. And the neighborhood, in turn, has watched the 33-year-old son of Dominican immigrants undergo his own evolution.
Marte was raised by a single mother who worked in a factory, and struggled to support their family on her low wages. They lived below the poverty line, he said, and he envied the things people around him seemed to have.
“The guys on the block had chains and money and clothes and everything I wanted that my mom couldn't provide for me,” he recalled. “So as a kid, the people I looked up to were drug dealers.”
“I thought that was gonna be my whole life.”
At 13, he started selling drugs and was arrested for the first time with a couple of bags of weed in his pocket. Within 10 years, he would find himself in and out of the prison system another eight times, all for drug-related charges.
“That landed me in a cycle from there,” he told Global Citizen. “I thought that was gonna be my whole life.”
By the time he was 19, he was running a multimillion-dollar drug delivery business, and making more money than he knew what to do with.
He was arrested in 2009, for the last time, at 23, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. That was later reduced to seven, of which he ultimately only had to serve four.
But today, Marte is the head of a very different kind of business: a fitness company called ConBody, a “prison-style” bootcamp run and taught by formerly incarcerated people.
Frustrated by the difficulties he faced finding employment after being released from prison, Marte wanted to help other formerly incarcerated people make a living in an environment where they could be themselves and didn’t have to hide their records. So, inspired by his own fitness journey, he started ConBody.
The business has not only helped thousands of people break a sweat, but, perhaps more importantly, it’s helped dozens of formerly incarcerated people break the all too common cycle of poverty and re-incarceration.
Coss Marte catches up with a friend outside the Chinese Hispanic Grocery on the Lower East Side. At the height of his drug business, Marte would sell drugs on this same corner. Today, he can be spotted working out in the park across the street.
Few things on the Lower East Side are the same as they were when Marte was a kid. And that includes the former Chevrah Kadisha Anshei Sochetchov Synagogue, whose second floor is now the location of ConBody.
The workout routines use the same kind of bodyweight exercises Marte did in his cell while incarcerated. When Marte arrived in prison, doctors told him his blood pressure and cholesterol were out of control and that he was likely to have a fatal heart attack within five years. But Marte didn’t plan to die in prison.
“That motivated me to start working out in my cell and in the prison yard, and eventually I lost 70 pounds in six months by consistently running, working out,” Marte said.
His fitness routine and progress caught the attention of other inmates. So he started training them, and helped 20 inmates lose more than a thousand pounds collectively. But it wasn’t until he was sent to solitary confinement after an altercation with an officer that he came up with a plan to make fitness his new career.
“When I was in 24-hour lockdown, I had no other thing to do but just think and reflect about changing my ways and I had a sort of spiritual awakening,” Marte said.
“I thought about fitness because that's what I was already doing. I was already helping people and I didn't want to go back to dealing drugs and going back into that lifestyle. I realized I had not only affected my family, but the thousands of people that I sold drugs to.”
In March 2013, Marte was released. He came home to a world that was just different enough to be uncomfortably unfamiliar. MySpace was dead. Flip phones had been replaced by touchscreens.
“And I remember an officer telling telling me that the air smells different outside the cage, outside those fences — and it actually did.”
But Marte said the real change was that his son, who was a toddler when he was incarcerated again, was now 6 years old and didn’t know how to talk to his father if it wasn’t through a prison payphone.
Readjusting was hard.
He still had plans to start a fitness business, but without any means to do so, he had to find another job first. Marte would sleep on his mom’s couch and spend every day going from store to store looking for minimum wage retail jobs — but no one would hire him.
“Three felonies on my record … It was like a stamp for life. So ConBody was basically born out of desperation,” he said.
In the Lower East Side’s Sara D. Roosevelt Park, where he played soccer as a kid and later sold drugs, he began approaching people with offers of training sessions. He started with the people he knew and eventually approached strangers to spread the word. From there, he rented out studios to teach classes, and entered business plan competitions for entrepreneurs, through which he was able to get more funding, until, in 2016, he was able to open ConBody’s first permanent location — just blocks from where he’d once been arrested.
Left: The entrance to ConBody's new location on Ludlow Street. Right: Coss Marte prepares to run in the streets of New York City's Lower East Side.
It’s not just ConBody’s workouts that are “prison-style” though. It’s also the space itself. When class begins, a prison cell gate slams shut. There’s a “mugshot wall” where clients can take photos after their workout with a sign bearing the business slogan: Do the time.
“A lot of people say it's a little bit gimmicky because of the mugshot wall and the prison gate and all that stuff,” Marte said. But he feels it’s his gimmick to claim.
“The reason why I did this and fitted out the whole space like this was I was just tired of hiding. I felt like this is freedom for me.”
Instead of having to hide or be ashamed of his criminal record, Marte said that ConBody’s theme empowers him and the other formerly incarcerated people he’s hired to own their pasts. And, for once, the “gimmick” — their records — has been an advantage instead of a deal-breaker, setting them apart from other fitness companies.
To date, Marte has hired 26 other formerly incarcerated individuals and has seen a zero-recidivism rate, meaning no one has been re-incarcerated — his proudest achievement so far.
“That’s pretty much unheard of by any nonprofit or for-profit business tackling the criminal justice space. And what we've done has worked. The community that we build has really changed a lot of perceptions,” Marte said.
“What happens next? Desperation."
Not being able to find a job means many formerly incarcerated people struggle to afford food and housing. They’re unable to support their families, and are either driven into or kept in poverty. And, studies have shown, that this can lead to higher rates of recidivism.
“You know, when you’re released from a New York State facility, you’re only given $40 dollars and a bus ticket. That money goes to your first meal at, like, McDonald's, and then the train system, and then you’re pretty much broke,” Marte said.
“What happens next? Desperation — and I want to eliminate that and I want to give people an opportunity,” Marte said.
Only 55% of formerly incarcerated people report earnings in their first year after release, and those who are employed have a median annual income of $10,000, according to the Brookings Institution.
The Sara D. Roosevelt Park in New York City's Lower East Side, where Coss Marte played soccer as a child and later sold drugs. After being released from prison, Marte began his fitness business in the park.
Approximately 2.3 million people in the United States are incarcerated, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Most of them are poor — and many of them, after being incarcerated, will stay poor.
Many people enter prison poor, and leave even poorer. But even if a person is released from prison with what is technically enough resources to get back on their feet, they may ultimately find themselves on a “poverty path” because of the stigma of a criminal record, according to Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.
It’s a loss for the country as a whole.
Formerly incarcerated people are systematically shut out of a wide range of employment opportunities due to stigma, discrimination, and laws that prevent people with criminal records from working certain jobs or obtaining business licenses.
Grawert said communities and lawmakers need to start re-evaluating these long-held norms.
“At the state and community level, people have to start asking questions like: Do you really need a blemish-free criminal record to be a hairdresser? Do you need one to be an electrician?”
The unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is 27%, the Prison Policy Institute reported. That’s “higher than the total US unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression,” despite actively looking for employment at higher rates than the general population, according to the organization.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people transition from jails and prisons back to their communities, and struggle to find employment, which isn’t just a loss for them — it’s a loss for the country as a whole.
The Center for Economic Policy and Research estimates the US economy loses somewhere between $78 and $87 billion annually, due to the exclusion of formerly incarcerated people from employment.
What is particularly puzzling about this is that formerly incarcerated people are often barred from jobs they performed while in prison.
While incarcerated, Marte worked as a customer service agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles. He was paid 10 cents an hour. But now that he’s out of prison, it’s unlikely he’d be hired for that position, given his criminal record.
Similarly, inmates in California can volunteer to work as firefighters — they are paid a comparatively high rate of $1 an hour — and receive official training. But once released from prison, their records prohibit them from actually becoming firefighters.
Marte said his ultimate goal for ConBody is to grow the business internationally, and eventually to franchise the model to hire as many formerly incarcerated people as possible.
“I want to give them an economical, sustainable opportunity to really adapt back to society and help them not go back,” he said.
When Marte’s drug business was at its peak, he never imagined he would go into the fitness business.
"I’m going to spend the rest of my life here, might as well just adapt to the environment."
In fact, when he was last arrested, he nearly gave up on his dreams of a future of any kind.
Marte received nine charges, of which he says he was probably guilty of only two. But with his bail set at $500,000, it was impossible for him to make bail and fight the other charges.
“When I was offered a half-a-million-dollar cash bail … I lost hope.”
Marte said he actually returned to his jail cell in Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex, and smoked. He no longer cared about the consequences of violating the rules.
“I was like … I’m going to spend the rest of my life here, might as well just adapt to the environment,” he remembered.
Coss Marte is pictured in the Sara D. Roosevelt Park in New York City's Lower East Side, where he played soccer as a child and later sold drugs. After being released from prison, Marte began his fitness business in the park.
So he stayed in Rikers for a year — he even got married to the mother of his child while there — until he was finally transferred to Greene Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where he served the majority of his sentence.
Being able to help fight the additional charges wouldn’t have been the only advantage to being out on bail. Marte knew he was guilty and would be spending some time in prison for his actions.
“I feel like [being out on bail] is a fair chance for people to come home and actually join a program or something even if they're guilty of the crime,” Marte said. “They could go back home be like, alright, I committed a crime and I need help … whether that’s a rehab program or finding a job and cleaning up before you see the judge again. I think it's just a better alternative to incarceration.”
Marte said he met many people in arguably worse positions in Rikers — men who had been there for seven months, unable to afford a $1,000 bail, for jumping a subway turnstile, and others still who had spent two years in Rikers trying to fight their cases only to give up and plead guilty in hopes of being released sooner.
Even worse, many people were detained over $1 bails — a nominal amount sometimes set when a defendant is charged with multiple offenses. These $1 bails were frequently miscommunicated, and defendants were not allowed to pay for themselves, until the practice was eliminated in New York City last month, just weeks after New York State overhauled its cash bail system.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers passed a bill on March 31 that eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes, which activists and advocates have recognized as a major step forward in addressing the criminalization of poverty.
The cash bail system was created to help ensure people charged with crimes would appear for their court dates. However, experts and criminal justice reform advocates say there is no strong evidence that people intentionally skip their court appointments.
“From our experience, we have always seen and continue to see the vast majority of our clients make all of their required court appearances,” said Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.
The organization has paid bail for more than 4,300 people over the past four years and seen approximately 95% of its clients make their court dates.
"Some folks may need assistance with respect to a phone call reminder of the date, a MetroCard to get there, or help finding daycare, but the vast majority simply make their court appearances,” Goldberg added. This is also the experience of bail funds around the country, he said.
What the cash bail system ultimately does is keep people who are not yet convicted of crimes in jail because they cannot afford their freedom. Cash bail not only discriminates against people living in poverty, but disproportionately affects communities of color — who are often also impoverished.
It’s for that reason that experts and advocates say New York’s cash bail reform measures don’t go far enough to respect the liberty of those who have not been proven guilty of a crime yet and to prevent the criminalization of poverty. The reforms passed still allow judges to set bail for people accused — but not convicted — of “the most serious of offenses.”
Goldberg said it’s not yet clear how that will be applied to all cases. For instance, it’s unclear whether Marte would have been eligible for bail or allowed to return home until his court date under these reforms.
“I think, in large part, the focus needs to shift back to our commitment to the presumption of innocence and our commitment to notions around due process and equal protection and the right to to a fair and speedy trial,” Goldberg said.
He added that there is also a need to re-evaluate the degree to which people are arrested and prosecuted for what are essentially “crimes of poverty” — for example, crimes that result from not being able to pay a fee or fine.
Marte wants to do more than create employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people. In the five years since Marte created ConBody, he’s found his voice as an activist. And that’s reflected in small changes in the studio.
The workout area of ConBody’s first permanent location featured a barbed wire fence mural. At its new location, just two blocks away, posters bearing sobering statistics about mass incarceration in the US have replaced the fence. They serve as a reminder to clients who emerge from the workout “cell” dripping with sweat that these issues extend far beyond ConBody’s walls and have impacted millions of people.
Coss Marte, founder of ConBody, does a pull up on the construction scaffolding of a nearby building. The fitness studio offers bootcamp style workouts using bodyweight exercises like those Marte did in his prison cell while incarcerated.
Marte hopes to challenge preconceived notions and stereotypes surrounding people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.
The lockers in the studio don’t actually have locks, a subtle effort to foster trust and build community. And he and his team have a great sense of humor, bringing laughter to gruelling workouts, instead of tears.
Yet, despite his success — ConBody is about to open its first international location — Marte said he still faces discrimination. Venture capital firms won’t support him. And investors and traditional banks have turned him away because of his record.
But he said he hopes to show people that formerly incarcerated are intelligent people with skills to offer and families to support.
“We just want a second opportunity … a second chance,” Marte said.
This week Global Citizen is publishing a series of stories focused on the impact of cash bail and the criminal justice system on people affected by poverty. Go to End Bail, Fight Poverty to read these stories.