Prison Reform with Coss Marte

Coss Marte is a prison reform advocate and a formerly incarcerated person who leads a social mission to help justice-impacted individuals.
Prison Reform with Coss Marte
Published August 2, 2022

Dave Ursillo speaks to entrepreneur and prison reform activist Coss Marte, founder of ConBody and ConBud, which employ formerly incarcerated persons as part of a wider social mission to de-stigmatize the formerly incarcerated community, ease their integration back into society, and change the systemic inequity of the criminal justice system.

Coss is also the author of ConBody: The Revolutionary Bodyweight Prison Boot Camp, Born from an Extraordinary Story of Hope.

Nonprofit organizations helping formerly incarcerated people: Defy Ventures, Thrive for Life, and Fortune Society.

Coss’s brother, Christopher Marte, who was elected to District 1’s City Council in New York City in 2021.

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Episode Transcript

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Dave Ursillo  00:00

In 2008, the United States of America had the world’s highest rate of incarceration, imprisoning one in every 198 Americans. Around the same time, a record high of about 2.3 million Americans are in the US prison system. imprisonment rates skyrocketed from about 1980 well into the 2000s. And one major contributing factor was the so called war on drugs. The war on drugs was a global campaign intended to reduce the drug trade in the United States and expand military, policing and foreign policy initiatives across almost every continent. After 50 years and counting, some estimate that the total cost of the war on drugs comes to over $1 trillion. While incarceration rates have been on the decline over recent years, the US today still in prisons a larger share of its population today than any other country on Earth, the war on drugs is still largely to blame. at that peak rate of incarceration in 2008, The Washington Post reported that of the 1.5 million Americans who were arrested every year for drug offenses, half a million would go on to be incarcerated. Our guest today Coss Marte was among them. From The New Story Company this is The New Story Is a conversation and interview based podcast that explores the stories, perceptions, and ideas that have come to shape the world today as we know it. Along the way, we speak to talented guests who are championing the new stories that may shape our collective future for the good. I’m Dave Ursillo. Coss Marte is the founder of ConBody, a prison style fitness bootcamp and startup that is on a mission to D stigmatize the formerly incarcerated community, ease their integration back into society and change the systemic inequity of the criminal justice system. ConBody has delivered fitness boot camps to 10s of 1000s of students worldwide, and has worked with over 100 formerly incarcerated professionals with a 0% recidivism rate. Last week on July 27 2022, cars provided testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Small Business as the US Congress explored opportunities and barriers to entrepreneurship for the formerly incarcerated. Here’s his testimony.

Coss Marte  02:30

You invited me to share my journey as a small business owner with a criminal record. I’m born and raised in the Lower East Side of New York City where as a child, there were limited opportunities to succeed legally. Individuals that I saw succeed were usually the drug dealers that stood on the corner and wore big chains and rode luxury vehicles. As a kid school teachers would ask me, What do you want to be when you grow up, and I will tell him, I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be rich so badly because my mom emigrated from the Dominican Republic with limited resources as six months pregnant with me. I grew up in a heavily drug infested neighborhood at the time, and I hated the fact that my mom died with things because she had no money. This led me to the streets at a very early age, where I began selling drugs and eventually created a multimillion dollar drug empire. And by the age of 19, I was making over $2 million a year. But this all ended as I was arrested by the DEA and ended up being sentenced to seven years in prison. As I entered prison, the prison system I developed a workout routine that saved my life. I lost over 70 pounds in just six months after doctors told me I could die in prison from a heart attack because of my cholesterol levels. I then helped over 20 inmates who was over 1000 pounds combined. And this led me to develop a business plan whilst sitting in solitary confinement. And that idea launched as calm body, a prison style boot camp that hires formerly incarcerated individuals to teach fitness classes. Today we trained over 70,000 people worldwide. As I came home from my prison sentence, I was released with $40 a bus ticket and is net bag with my business plan. However, I was faced with many barriers such as insurance real estate capital policy regulations against hiring employees who have been formerly incarcerated. Even finding a job was difficult as I was denied over 100 times because of my paths. And thanks to programs like the five ventures who believe that formerly incarcerated individuals have the entrepreneurial skills to start their own businesses, I was able to navigate the resources of running a small business. However, even with the help of defy, I was rejected Business Insurance insurance multiple times. I was even quoted absurd rates of $30,000 a month to launch my small business because of my criminal record.

Coss Marte  05:00

encamp capital came into play, as banks had those questions in those applications. Have you ever been convicted of a criminal record? I literally sold my collections of over 300 pairs of Jordan sneakers to use to start a capital to start my business. In addition, real estate locations rejected me because of the same factors. It took me three years of showing up every single day, twice a day through rain, sleet, snow, to train my clients at a public park. It was truly not an easy task. But I was fortunate enough to catch a year of a landlord, who owned a Buddhist temple who let me rent her basement to operate my small business. When we were able to create a safe space for my myself and my employees who will all have been incarcerated in the system. We truly thought it was going to be a safe haven for my employees who have been gone who have gone through so many biases in a workforce due to the past criminal record. But we were faced with fraternising, a rule that stated in parole and probation, where formerly incarcerated individuals are not allowed to be in the same space at any given time. Our goal was to create a space where we’re our employees had each other’s back and made sure that we will never go back into the system, which has worked so far. However, fraternising has blocked us from employing some formerly incarcerated individuals, due to their parole and probation officers denying them from working with us. For example, we had one individual who was about to be violated on parole, and sentenced to two years in prison for working with us. But thankfully enough, we were able to create a petition with our community and clients and employees to prevent him from going back inside. We also brought this issue to the regional supervisors and the parole system to stop one of our employees for being re incarcerated. Because he was working with us, our efforts worked, and we were able to get them out of the situation. But today, there’s so many individuals that come out of the system that face this issue, but don’t have a community to support them through these barriers. I’ve been a strong advocate for criminal justice reform for the last plus nine years. And I’m a true believer that given the tools that we need, we can show that we can not only bring recidivism rates down, but demonstrate that we can really tap on tap talent. So beyond the entrepreneur space. And according to Harvard political review, currently, our national recidivism is 76%. But if we employ our returning citizens and give them a second chance, it drops down automatically to 31%. And the proudest stat that I’m proudest of at ConBody is that we have a zero recidivism rate. No one has gone back into the prison system. I believe what New York State is doing on the cannabis space is a great example of innovation in the business world. By giving first licenses to people that have been just as impacted by the war on drugs, and the Canada’s cannabis space. I believe this is a great example that we could fall that not only can help our communities bar count economy as well. For example, I’ve recently launched a company called kombucha a potential dispensary in New York State, where we’ll be hiring formerly incarcerated visitors to work with us. And we’ll get back portions of the proceeds to community members that have been affected by the war on drugs. I like to end this by leaving you with these questions. What if you were judged judged for the worst thing you’ve ever done for the rest of your life? or what have you are known for taking those negative situations and turning them into like a legacy that can impact our future? What would you want to choose? Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to your questions and assets.

Dave Ursillo  08:48

That was Coss Marte speaking in front of the US Senate Committee on Small Business at the US Congress on July 27 2022, Coss is an entrepreneur, he’s a prison reform activist, and he’s the founder of ConBody. He’s also the author of a book by the same name. This interview was originally recorded in May 2020. Coss, Welcome to The New Story Is thank you so much for being here. God, thank you, Dave. So our listeners by now understand some of the circumstances of what was going on in your life, that you were arrested by the DEA and eventually convicted on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to seven years time in the New York state prison system. But what was going on in your health at this time? What was going on and contributing to your eventual health issues that you would discover when you were imprisoned?

Coss Marte  09:40

Yeah, I mean, I was I was out in the streets and and living a lifestyle like dealing and smoking, drinking a lot. Eating whatever I wanted, you know, so I was never checking up on myself in the doctor. You know, I was not you know, I was I was just living day to day, living the street life. And that’s what happens where you don’t expect it. And I didn’t even notice I gained all that weight until I got in. And I jumped on the scale when I was incarcerated. And I was like, What the hell. And when they told me my cholesterol levels were in danger of catching a heart attack within five years, and I was being sentenced to seven years in prison, I was like, I can’t die in this place. Like, I’m, I’m only 24 years old, you know, it woke me up. It woke me up to start moving. And it surprised me and, and it was hard. It was it was not easy. Because you’re, you’re already in an isolated place. And then now you feel like, you know, yeah, I don’t know. You could you could get helpless in times, you know.

Dave Ursillo  10:52

Yeah. And so facing your own mortality. All of a sudden, you were given a seven year prison sentence, but doctors in the prison told you that you could die within five years, you were really looking at your own mortality. Right? And so you started moving, as you say, and that’s what the the ConBody fitness program has become which you you teach now. Line, and you’ve written about in your book. How did the idea to write a book come about? Did you leave prison? Wanting to write a book?

Coss Marte  11:20

Yeah, no, it was. So I have a co writer, quote, his name is Brandon. Brandon Sneed, he basically wrote a 7000 word. piece on, was it on SB Nation. And I written my story out. So while I was incarcerated, I was a solitary confinement. I wrote out my story, I wrote out like this whole workout routine I have in a book, so I basically wrote my book and in solitary confinement, but I didn’t think about it, you know, I was not going to I just did it because I wanted to, like, formulate a workout plan for myself. And I wanted to teach these classes when I came home. I didn’t think I was gonna come out with a book after that. And

Dave Ursillo  12:09

then did Brandon Sargent. How did Brandon write the article on you? Did he shadow you? Did he Did he interview you firsthand?

Coss Marte  12:18

He reached out and, and he was like, lucky, I want to write up this piece on you. I want to fly out to New York and just follow you out. And this was like, I think this is 20 2014. So I was as probably about a year and a half out of prison, or 2015. And, and yeah, I was I was basically, you know, trying to get all the media I can to promote Cambodia at the time. And he started following me around. And at that time, I was like, I didn’t have an actual studio space. So I was renting out these like small little ballet studio spaces. He came took a workout. He followed me around the hood. He, you know, he met like, you know, old sort of sales for like old crackheads, old drug dealers around the neighborhood because I still live, like right around the block. So he basically like stood with me all day for about a week. And just studied me and, and then just got a lot of testimonial from people around the neighborhood. telling my story on their perspective. They’re brand new. And after he wrote this huge piece, he hits me up, he’s like, wouldn’t you want to turn your story and said book, and I was like, how? Yeah, you know, and, and he was like, you know, I think we could do a good workout book. And I think they do pretty well. So he connected me with his agent, his agent, broker to deal with St. Martin’s publishing company. And then from there, we just made it happen.

Dave Ursillo  13:57

Yeah, and you’ve gone on to be featured in over 200 major media outlets such as NBC, CNN, The New York Times, Ted, Ted Talks, Men’s Fitness, you’ve also won some major pitch competitions, including the TOMS Shoes, pitch for good. The YPO Shark Tank competition altogether, that’s a combined quarter million dollars that you are able to raise for your social enterprise. You know, because you’ve gotten so much positive media attention, I love that you have and you’ve been able to turn your personal story of hardship, into the social mission. It’s really inspiring. It’s really motivating. I can see why so many people want to get involved with it. Right. But I’m curious for that, from your personal perspective. Have you found it challenging to relive the story of your incarceration? Even just when you were co writing the book with Brandon? Was it was it challenging to go back and kind of like open these old wounds?

Coss Marte  14:58

It hit me and times of bringing back those bad memories, but also good memories. Because not everything in prison was was bad in terms of like, the camaraderie that I had working out with dad and mates. You know, the camaraderie I had with people that I dealt with in the streets. It was, it was, you know, there was some fun fun times, you know, so I wouldn’t say everything was horrible. And I felt, you know, like, sad the whole time. I think there was there was times where I’m like, you know, reading certain parts, and I’m like, damn, I was messed up situation. And then there was certain times where I’m like, oh, yeah, I remember that day, you know, you’re joking around running around in the yard, you know.

Dave Ursillo  15:46

You talk about feeling addicted to money. This is something that you realize when you were imprisoned and that this feeling of addiction to money to making money, felt like it was a major driver of like, the force behind your desire to hustle on the street before you got busted by the DEA. And in your book you write about when you’re in solitary confinement, you had this awareness about your own addiction. And this is a quote, you say, quote, that was hurting people for no other reason than making money. I was an addict, too. I wasn’t addicted to crack or some other drug. My vise was money, unquote. So today, Coss Do you feel like your addiction is gone? Do you feel like it’s under wraps? Do you feel like it’s under control? Or do you feel like you’re, you found a way to channel not like a chemical addiction, but you found a way to channel this, this drive that you call an addiction to making money into hustling into, say, like a positive channel, like through exercise through teaching people exercise throughs, through through raising money legally, through helping people through having this social advocacy mission in prison reform and helping the formerly incarcerated? What do you think it is? Does it still feel like an addiction or a compulsion? Not to get medical about it? But do you feel like that, that drive that you call addiction is still now present, but in a different way?

Coss Marte  17:09

Yeah. And so the addiction of money definitely went away when I was in app purchase, so I think that was my aha moment where I was, like, you know, is not all about the money and people, you know, might see me I was like, you know, successful, like fitness entrepreneur, but I’m not there yet. I’m not there where I was, you know, making millions of dollars, you know, and doing whatever the hell I wanted back, like back in the day. And when I came home, I really had to humble myself, you know, I lost everything. I lived in my mom’s couch for about a year. I was waking up at five in the morning, doing a conducting classes at 536 o’clock in the morning, outdoors in a park across the street. And I was not making any money, I was, you know, maybe bringing in a couple 100 bucks a month off of it. And, and I was I was doing this seven days a week, you know, I was like, not stopping, you know, just trying to find to get people and that took me about a year and a half of doing that consistently. When I decided to take the take the jump and start doing it, you know, full time on the side. I was actually cleaning apartments. I was doing housekeeping work. And then I was doing all the side jobs moving. I was doing anything to get any type of money on the side, legally. And so that I think, my, my, my addiction became wake up and just get things done, you know, and get this done, right. And then became my addiction. And I think I had that addiction back in the day. But it was not about money and stepping on people to get whatever I want it like I had

Dave Ursillo  19:06

before. What are some of the challenges that a formerly incarcerated person tends to deal with? As soon as they leave prison?

Coss Marte  19:16

Yeah, I think when you’re when you’re inside prison, you know, you and you’re about to be released. And you just have all this hope in the world that everything’s going to be great. You’re turning into turning on a new leaf. But it’s not it’s not once you come home and your head where reality and you’re being rejected for jobs, you’re being rejected for different opportunities. I mean, I I literally tried to get life insurance the other a couple of months ago and I was rejected because of my criminal record and about only sold drugs. Which is Which is crazy. You know, there’s just so many collateral consequences that we have to deal with. As somebody has committed a crime and it hurts, you know, when when when you just like, going to apply for a job and you, you see that person looking at the application and looking at this section where it says, Have you ever been convicted of a felony? And you’ve marked that? Yes. And they look up at you, and you just know that you just being judged with that body language and that look, and you’re never gonna get that call back? You know, I know. It’s hard. It’s hard.

Dave Ursillo  20:34

Are there any major preconceived notions about formerly incarcerated people that are myths are generally untrue, in your opinion? So we started to talk about that. But tell me about some of those either myths or like untrue assumptions.

Coss Marte  20:48

Yeah, I think what we see in the media has always been there were all like, killers and predators, and you have this pre conceived notion that we’re just like, so bad that you’re around us, we’re going to hurt you, you know, so. And when you go into prison is actually not like that, you know, there, there are those, you know, individuals that are part of gangs, and they’re dealing with that issue. But I think the majority of people that go into prison, they just want to do their time and get out, you know, and that’s what I’ve seen, I’ve been in probably eight different jails and prisons, across New York State, and everybody just wants to do at a time, nobody wants to, you know, hurt anybody unless you you doing something retaliating against that person, or, you know, there are gang politics, but what we see in the media, as somebody’s, like, screaming outside of a cell, and like, you know, trying to hurt you and all this other stuff, that’s probably like, 1% of what is going down in the

Dave Ursillo  22:00

listener? Jessica asks, this is a question about coming out of prison, she asks, What can an ordinary member of society like herself do? Or possibly do to make the transition back into society better for formerly incarcerated person? And then I’ll add, is it just a matter of kind of, like educating oneself? And I don’t even know meeting people such as you who kind of break those myths and stereotypes, or what advice would you give? I’m sure you’ve been asked this question before, during different media opportunities and public events.

Coss Marte  22:35

Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot, there’s a lot of ways that people can help someone that’s coming out and transitioning. A lot of individuals coming out of the prisons are mandated by parole, to join a nonprofit organizations to find jobs and all that stuff. But I think the most simplest form of change, and how you could help that individual is just to treat them, like a human being, you know, don’t don’t judge them for the past. But if you already want to take a step forward and help them, you know, we adapt back into society, I think there’s different organizations, I sit on the board of Fortune Society, thrive for life. You know, there’s different a lot of different organizations that help. I think, one big one that we assisted me and, and having met executives and different individuals, who came and volunteer was the five ventures, the five ventures was huge for me, they, they basically, you know, new helped me readapt with my family, who my own family judge me for the things I’ve done in the past. And, you know, they have all rights to do that, because I’ve always had this repeated behavior of coming home and doing the same thing or coming home and doing the same thing. So I really broke down that stereotype between my family and and the great thing about the five Ventures is that they have in prison programs, where people, executives, volunteers could go inside the prison system, and we help somebody. So defy Ventures is a program that helps people start their businesses. And they believe that illegal entrepreneurs can become legal entrepreneurs. Their whole slogan is transform your hustle. So I may have these like business executives, mentors, come into the prison, help people with their business plans, help people with the simple resumes and they just want to find a job. And every speaker somebody you know, so it’s, it’s an awesome program, and I can’t speak enough about it.

Dave Ursillo  24:50

That’s great. Well, we’ll include links to those organizations in the show notes, including the links to ConBody in your book and everything. So cause, you know, we’re talking In a lot about a lot of different heavy, challenging subjects, a lot of what’s your very personal connection within. And I’m wondering if you ever tire of telling your story, obviously telling one story can feel very cathartic, very good, very liberating. You’ve really claimed your story in that way, through your actions. Do you ever feel tired of telling your story?

Coss Marte  25:21

Yeah, I don’t get tired of I don’t know, it’s, it’s different. If I’m saying the same thing to the same person, then I do get tired of it. But when I when I have a new audience, you just get a whole different energy and you have a whole different interaction every single time. When I share my story of being in solitary, or starting this business, dealing with the struggles and working on the successes, it’s not even I don’t get tired, I’ve gotten tired, where I’ve literally had probably had to do like, six or seven speaking engagements in one day. So like, going from one place to the other, and then speaking here, speaking to speaking and speaking there, you know, and then you’re like, woof, you know? That’s a lot. And sometimes you get like, questions. But no, I haven’t for the most part, I haven’t gotten tired.

Dave Ursillo  26:23

What would you say are some of like the highlight experiences that you’ve been getting into in the last couple of years in your advocacy for like social and policy change?

Coss Marte  26:34

So there was a one, you know, great moment where I got to speak to Governor Cuomo as a team. And, and we got one policy change where formerly incarcerated people couldn’t get business insurance. So that was a collateral consequence that they didn’t even know about it, but it was just old by law. And so when I was operating combat in the beginning, I was operating with no business insurance there for a while, because some quotes, and if I would be able to get business insurance, because of my background, my quote, was being quoted at like, 30,000 a month, something that I was never going to be able to afford at that time. So it was, it was crazy. And that and that got changed. You know, I got it took a little while it took about a year. But that got changed. And that was that was amazing to see that. Now formerly incarcerated people could get their own business insurance and move forward to that path. Yeah. And then also like having my brother now. So my brother ran for city council for district one in Manhattan. He lost by 1%. And now he’s running again, he’s probably going to win because the incumbent can’t run again. But yeah, he’s been he he shut down the project of building a new jail. They were they were planning to do this $9 billion project or not be heard about it. But they were building four new jails in the New York City area, after they shut Rikers Island. But we were talking about using those $9 billion dollars and opening up schools and opening up more mental health centers instead of opening up more jails. And they were literally going to open up one in our neighborhood. And he’s, he’s a local politician. Right now. His name is Chris Marty. But he he sued the city, which held back the plans of opening up their jail. Yeah.

Dave Ursillo  28:42

That’s amazing. That’s, that’s another great accomplishment. And so, so your brother’s your brother is, is a politician, and he’s looking to get elected to office. What’s next for you? Cause, you know, do you have any political ambitions yourself?

Coss Marte  28:56

Yeah, I’m not I don’t want to get into politics. I am 110% supporter of my brother. And so helping him in his camp in new campaign now. He’s a committee man now, that’s his political position downtown now. But for city council, I’m down to support him and speak if you need to speak or, or advocate for him. But I’m really just focusing on a calm body and growing this online platform. So having people work out virtually from all around the world. It’s been it’s been amazing to see the support. We’ve gotten people from Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, to Russia, all over Europe, you know, join our livestream workout. So it’s been it’s been pretty humbling to see how much support is out there. To see us succeed,

Dave Ursillo  29:57

Coss Marte is the founder of ConBody. Coss, thank you so much for sharing your story for all the work that you do. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you. 

Coss Marte  30:05

Thank you. 

Dave Ursillo  30:07

We originally recorded this interview in May 2020. Since then Coss has become a father for the second time. His brother Christopher won his election for City Council in New York City’s district one where he now serves as a city councilman in the neighborhood where coz once upon a time, was doing his drug dealing in a very full circle experience. Coss also now founded con bud buid as he looks into legal cannabis distribution in the state of New York, and bringing his social entrepreneurship in his efforts to reintegrate formerly incarcerated persons into society into the mainstream. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of The New Story Is We hope you enjoyed our conversation today. If you did enjoy it, please leave us a rating and review wherever you listen to podcasts. If you don’t know how to subscribe or follow, please ask someone who seems like they know how because it can be a little challenging, I know. Until next time, my name is Dave Ursillo. Thanks for listening. Bye for now.

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