One day, I came across this BuzzFeed video of a man making a prison burrito. This man, is Coss Marte. A formerly incarcerated individual who is now the founder and CEO of his own company, ConBody, that helps others get fit as well as help formerly incarcerated individuals in securing a job upon release.
On November 8th (yes, election day), I met up with Coss at his studio to discuss where the idea came from, the culture shock faced by people upon release, and Ava Duvernay’s The 13th on Netflix.
Where did the idea of ConBody come from?
The idea began while I was in my nine by six prison cell in the box, that’s solitary confinement. I was towards the end of my incarceration and I was about to be let out. It was within two months, and I got into a problem with a officer. That led me to do another year in prison, so while I was in this box, I said, “I need to stop.” I had this spiritual awakening and I was not going to go back. I was already training inmates in the prison yard, like doing classes out there, doing a group fitness thing. I didn’t come up with the idea until I was in that situation, but I was already doing it in the prison yard before I landed in solitary confinement. When I was there, that’s when I said, “This is what I want to do when I come home,” and I came home and did it.
How did you think about these exercises? How did you think to use your own body weight, rather than needing to use actual weights?
I went through this program called Shock, which is ex-Marines turned correctional officers. Every morning we’d wake up and we’d work out for about an hour and a half, and it’s all body weight exercises. It’s like military stuff, so we run like a military base program, including with a lot of exercises that I learned from inmates that had done 20, 30 years of prison. I combined the two and came up with a prison workout.
One of the things about ConBody is that they help people who are being released. Why do you do that? I mean, I know why, but why is it that you would first hire them before hiring someone else?
I began hiring formerly incarcerated people because I felt the pain of me coming out and searching for jobs, having the door shut down in my face every single time. I probably filled out over a hundred applications in probably the first month I came out, and I would go to stores and it would be like, “Sorry.” I felt that the door being slammed every day in my face, and it would be primarily because of my felony. I felt like society was setting me up, so out of desperation I started my own thing.
How long after starting it, did it essentially take off?
I made it pop off the first day. So I took people that I knew, took them to the park and started training them. Then eventually people started watching us in the park, went “Oh, what’s this?” and being interested, intrigued. I would stop my session, go after somebody that looks like they were working out or had yoga pants on, and I’d be like, “You got to come join us.” They’d be like, “Oh, I don’t know,” and eventually they’d want to do this. I just never stopped asking and I was always stopping people in the street. Every day I stopped somebody on the street to tell them about ConBody.
Do you do inside and outside workouts, and how do they differ?
Yeah. Inside we don’t use any shoes, and it’s basically the only differentiation. We have the studio inside; it’s probably warmer than outside. We’ve got water, a locker room. We run probably the same program outside. We don’t do outside 12 months out of the year because it gets super cold, but I bought a prison bus.
What is that?
I bought a school bus and turned it into a prison bus. I built pull-up bars on top of it, a changing room inside of it, a whole stereo system, a locker room. So we use that when we do our outdoor workouts, which is pull up in front of parks and knock out the workout right there. A mobile gym.
Workouts like that where some people who don’t have access … people in New York City and LA and larger metropolitan areas, they have access to fitness studios like this; they have several options. Have you ever thought about traveling somewhere with it?
Yeah, I’ve done stuff everywhere. I’ve been traveling a lot doing the workouts in California, here, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Boston. Everywhere I go, I pop out and do a workout somewhere. London.
No, you haven’t.
I just came back from Hong Kong right now. Yeah, I’m jet lagged from a 15-hour flight.
What? Okay, so first of all, why did you go, and how was it received?
They loved it. I think it was better received over there than here. In Hong Kong, I went over there because I did a TedTalk over there. It was 2,000 people in the audience. I basically told my story, and it was being live streamed, so a lot of people from there were watching it. I was randomly walking down the street and getting stopped by people, like, “My God, we saw you on Ted Talk,” and this and that. I was like, “Oh, that’s awesome.” You know, taking pictures and it was crazy.
They would say, “You got to bring ConBody Hong Kong over here.”
Now do you think that you for sure want to expand?
I already knew I wanted to expand, but we’re first expanding by online. Right now we ConBody Live, which is an online platform where every month we’re introducing a different former incarcerated person, and for $5 a month you can work out with that person, or whichever … your favorite ex-con, so you don’t need to come to the studio. We just launched it four weeks ago, and almost 4,000 people signed up for it already from 20 different countries. It’s just been an amazing response. People are loving it. It’s 20 minute workout videos. I think it gives me a wider reach to help more former incarcerated people, so if I have a platform which you could choose, they could make money virtually anywhere. I have people reaching out to me from prisons in Italy. They want to get on the platform, and it’s going to be nuts.
Let’s talk about the door entering the studio? Why this door?
I built this whole studio to look like a prison. That was because I wanted to own it. I was tired of people judging and I couldn’t really say that I had a felony or I had been incarcerated. I had to hide it and I’m like, “You know what, fuck it? I’m going to own it. I did this mistake and I’m going to just not be ashamed of it and move on.” I worked at a nonprofit while I was starting ConBody. This nonprofit helped people on public assistance find employment, and some of the employees would talk crap about formerly incarcerated people. I was listening to this and I couldn’t say anything. They didn’t know that I had a case before, so I was ashamed. Then finally I got frustrated and I said, “I’ve been incarcerated.”
What was their response?
They just shut up. They shut up and I eventually left the job and went full-time with this.
If there is anything that people in prisons need that they’re not provided that the outside world could give them, what is that?
I think technology is a big deal. Being withheld from what’s going on in the modern world, it feels like a setup when you come out. I went in with a flip phone and came out with a touch screen phone, so everything was brand new to me. I remember the first day I got home, I was let out in the Buffalo airport. I’m in the Buffalo airport looking for a payphone to call my family to tell them pick me up from JFK, and I couldn’t find a payphone.
I asked this lady, “Can I use your phone?” and she passes me this touch screen thing and I’m like, “No, I need a phone.” She’s like, “What do you mean?” Then I was like, “I was locked up, I just came out of prison,” and she looked at me like, “What?” I was like, “No, no, no, don’t be scared. I really need to call my family,” and she dialed for me, because I didn’t even know how to dial on it.
Then I came home and I just felt like everything was … I was being set up for failure. Even with job applications. I came out and back in the day, you would go into a store and you’re like, “Can I fill out a job application?” You get a paper and pen and you fill it out. Now it’s just like go online, go online, and I’m like, “I don’t know how to deal with computers,” so it got super overwhelming and frustrating, but I just kept pushing myself to do it.
The thing about it is I feel like because of the way it’s set up, we’re told that correctional facilities get this, this and this, or the way it’s shown on television, that sometimes it’s glamorized. I’m surprised to hear that technology … I thought it was available, you know?
We still use cassette tape players inside. That’s how we listen to music. You press play, forward, rewind, stop button, AM, FM. It’s super outdated. My boy just came out, who was like my right hand man when I was selling drugs. He just came out actually three weeks ago. He’s working for us already and he was just bombarded with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and he was like, “I need to set up this, I need to set up that. I don’t know what to do. Can you sit down with me?” I’m like, I got so much things going on, I need to sit down and help you from the start. It takes awhile, you know? It took me a little bit. I started watching YouTube tutorial videos and Googling everything left and right.
Is there anything about ConBody or about the system or about working out that no one has ever asked you, but you have always wanted to tell the world?
About the system, it’s that I feel like everybody has committed a mistake and what if you were known for the worst thing you’ve ever done? You could have been in the same situation, so I feel like everybody needs to be treated as a human being, and not everybody in prison is … everybody thinks they’re a killer or kidnapper or rapist. That’s like the three things people imagine, and the majority of people are there for drugs or addiction or mental health issues.
Really quickly on the drug topic…I think it’s interesting that the same amount of drugs that are being sold on the streets by people of color is probably less than or equal to the amount of drugs that are sold in really wealthy white neighborhoods or on college campuses by white kids or those hoity-toity boarding schools upstate, and nothing happens to them; they get a slap on the wrist.
If you watch The 13th… my friend Glenn Martin is in the documentary. It basically talks about the 13th Amendment and how it was created to re-incarcerate the black community. It states if you commit a crime you’re subject to be a slave again. Because they abolished slavery, so now who else is going to pick the cotton? Who else is going to do all the chores? They’re not going to get their hands dirty, so how do we get them back to the field? We re-incarcerate them. Then we have this loophole in the 13th Amendment that says you are subject to slaver. So we send them back to the field to pick the cotton and do all this stuff. It’s just a whole twisted system and they show how politics has a large role in it.
Now they just talk about the new Jim Crow. There’s more people incarcerated now than during slavery, ever. Which is sad because 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated now. There are 100 million Americans with criminal histories, and the majority are Black and Hispanic.