Get Fit, Prison-Style, Without Doing Time

By Keri Blakinger 01/12/16

ConBody is a fitness program founded, staffed, designed and run by former prisoners. And the results are dramatic.

via Author

They’re killing time before class and Sultan Malik muses, “I just feel like I’m catching up.” 

And caught up he has. After 14 years in prison, Malik has now graduated from college and is working as a fitness instructor at ConBody. 

Calling out orders like a drill instructor, he leads the class through a series of burpees, jumping jacks and squat jacks.

This isn’t your regular fitness class. ConBody is a fitness program founded, staffed, designed and run by former prisoners like Malik and the program’s charismatic and impressive founder Coss Marte. 

“Let’s go! Come on,” Malik shouts. It’s three days before Christmas, but Malik’s not slacking off. 

Marte and Malik both did time—they’re some of the cons in ConBody—but they met on the outside, when a newly released Malik was looking for help putting together a resume and Marte was working as a resume maker.

“It was an instantaneous bond,” Malik said. 

Malik was doing time not for drugs, but for robbing drug spots à la The Wire’s Omar. Marte, on the other hand, was selling drugs. A Manhattan native, Marte was arrested in 2009 in a bust big enough that the website of the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor still has a post about it in the “Significant Case Archive.” 

It’s like, a couple of drug dealers and a bank robber walked into a fitness studio.

Marte wasn’t even a teenager yet when he started dealing. 

“At 11 years old, my cousin popped out a bag of weed and was like, ‘You wanna smoke?’” he recounted. “We rolled up a nasty blunt and it was lookin’ like a football, but we smoked it and we got high.” 

Marte wasn’t just interested in getting stoned, though; he quickly realized that the better high was selling. But, with selling drugs came the possibility of arrest – and soon that possibility became a reality. “I was in-and-out of jail since I was 13,” he said. “The first time I was arrested right on the block in the local park of the neighborhood. The second time I was 15 or 16 and I did about a year in a drug program.” 

Then, he went to the big leagues when he went to state prison in 2006, and again in 2010, after his 2009 arrest. During one of his stints behind bars, he came up with a plan for a better way to sell drugs. “I thought of the idea of having all my friends dress up in suits and ties and that way we won’t get stopped by the police. We won’t look like we’re selling drugs,” he said. So when he got out, that’s just what he did. 

He made up business cards and started dressing nice, in hopes of evading police attention. In the process, he built up a booming business. By the time he was 19, Marte said, he was pulling in $2 million a year. Now, he’s out of the drug world—but he said the allure of being a drug dealer and enjoying that kind of wealth can be almost as addictive as the drugs themselves. 

“It’s definitely an addiction. I mean, it was something that kept me up three days at a time,” he said. “I was super money hungry, going out there with the thrill of driving down the street with a whole bunch of stuff and the cops behind you. It’s a freedom as well, the freedom of not having a job and working for yourself even though you feel incarcerated in that world.”

So what turned it around for Marte? 

“I hit rock bottom,” he said. After his last arrest, Marte continued selling drugs in prison and experimented with some pills, but then he got sent to solitary confinement—when he should have had two months left before his release. 

“That really hit me hard. Not being in the cell, but knowing that I had only two months to go home,” he said. “I felt like I’d been doing the right thing; I was ready to go home. I was playing the victim,” Marte admitted.  

“I wrote out everything I was feeling and I wrote to my family to tell them I wouldn’t be out in two months. It was a 10-page letter and I didn’t have a stamp so I just left it on the little table in my cell and didn’t send it. I received a letter a week saying, ‘We found out where you at and you should read Psalm 91.’” Marte was not, at that point, very religiously inclined, so at first he did not heed the advice. 

Then, he decided to give it a go. “After a couple days I decided to open the Bible and read that and a stamp fell out of the Bible and that sent chills down my spine when I think about it now,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘I can’t go back. I need to do something different.’”

It was his awakening, his moment of clarity. “At that point it hit, and I was really regretful. I wanted to know how I could give back – I’d destroyed so many other people’s lives,” he said. “And then I began to realize I was already helping these guys in the yard, working out and things.” 

When Marte was released in 2013, he had a new lease on life. 

“When I came home I started doing a boot camp in the local park,” he said. It was the same park he’d been arrested in as a kid. Although he’d considered the possibility while still behind bars, at first he didn’t really think that making prison-style fitness into a career would pan out. 

“Initially, I wasn’t charging for classes and then I got my first customer by accident. I picked up this dirty old pipe that was on the ground and stuck it between fences at the park and I was doing pull-ups because there were no pull-up bars. Then one morning I’m training people and one guy jumps on the bar and tries to do a pull-up and I’m like, ‘Yo, that’s mine! You got to pay me to use that!’ And he said, ‘How much do you charge?’” Marte hadn’t really thought it through and just threw out a number: $200. The man agreed and became Marte’s first client. 

From there, Marte picked up more clients and gave more thought to what a structured program would look like. His workouts don’t require equipment; they’re things you could actually do in a prison cell or in the rec yard. In part, it’s based on the exercise-intense Lakeview “shock” incarceration program. 

Also, Marte made the decision to make sure his hiring practices were in line with the concept of ConBody. “I came up with the idea of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals to teach our classes because those are the people that I knew and they needed help,” he said. Accordingly, Marte has hired trainers with all sorts of records—from robbery to drug dealing.

He formally launched a business with the help of Defy Ventures and by June 2015, Marte was able to make ConBody into his full-time job. 

At first, ConBody was renting rooms in other buildings, but on Jan. 1 they opened their own space on Broome Street. The inside of ConBody plays on the prison theme, with a front desk made of cinderblocks, a real prison gate for a door and art showing a prison escape on one wall. 

For Marte, the location of the studio is symbolic: “It’s right on the block where I used to sell drugs at.”

His life—and his life rebooted—sounds almost unimaginable. Or, as his girlfriend and ConBody co-conspirator Jennifer Shaw pointed out, it all sounds almost like the start of a joke.  

“It’s like, ‘A couple of drug dealers and a bank robber walked into a fitness studio,’" she said with a laugh. 

But it’s no joke—they really did, and they’ve been wildly successful. 

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living near New York City. A writer for The New York Daily News, she has also been published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Quartz. She recently wrote about the drug policies of the 2016 Presidential Candidates as well as the problem with drug treatment programs in prison.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.