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Business

There's a prison in Saks 5th Avenue

Studies suggest more than half of all US convicts will reoffend as it can be tough to avoid the downward spiral after incarceration. But inspiration can be found at a gym in the heart of midtown Manhattan in New York.

With feet propped up on a toilet for added height, Coss Marte exercised daily, doing push ups until he could barely lift his arms. Then he would brace his hands and feet against the walls of his cell, pushing into a plank position. His home was a 9-by-6 foot (2.7 by 1.8 meter) cell that forced him to be creative with space.

Coss pushed forward day by day and tweaked his workout routine until it satisfied him. He dropped 70 pounds (31 kilos) in six months and other prisoners began to take notice. Soon Marte was leading over 20 inmates through daily exercise routines in the yard. The group lost a collective total of 1,000 pounds (454 kilos).

This is the story of how Coss Marte, an entrepreneur and innovative hustler, turned lemons into lemonade while serving time for leading a $2 million dollar (1.76 million euro) cocaine operation. Now, less than five years later, he is a free man and the CEO of ConBody, a gym that specializes in "prison-style bootcamp”.

In a poetic turn of events, Marte opened his first gym in 2014 on the same corner that he used to deal drugs from. From there the popularity of his unique style began to snowball, until he was approached about opening a gym in Sak's 5th Avenue, the heart of midtown New York and the land of rich young professionals.

Conbody US-Fitness-Studio-Kette (DW/A.Schwedt)

A typical ConBody studio is designed like a prison with bars and concrete floors. Members train without weights.

The outline for ConBody came to him while in solitary confinement. "I got into some trouble with an officer and I was in 24 hour lockdown,” remembers Coss. "I had time to think and reflect on how my life affected so many people. That's when I had the light bulb moment to start ConBody, to give back. Then I wrote out my whole routine, the whole book of workouts.”

ConBody serves two main purposes: implementing an ass-kicking workout that doesn't use any equipment while smashing social stereotypes around ex-convicts. All of the trainers at ConBody are formerly incarcerated individuals who are now on the other side of bars. "We are shedding light on how ex-cons are seen, realizing that this person is cool and I could hang out with them and not have to be scared because this person is not going to hurt me,” says Marte. "They are not all like the media portrays or inmates who be like crazy locked up animals, like killers. Almost all of them aren't.”

Conbody US-Fitness-Studio-Kette (DW/A.Schwedt)

Marte chose #dothetime as the motto of ConBody, meaning there are no shortcuts when you're working out - just like in prison.

'I was told I could die in prison'

Marte has a cinematic past, one that initially appeared quite dismal. "I went into prison for running one of the largest drug delivery services in New York. At 19, I was making over $2 million dollars per year and at 23 I was sentenced to seven years in prison.”

Starting out at Rikers Island, he spent most of his sentence at the Greene Correctional Facility in New York. It was during this time that his health weakened. Years of excessive partying and a thrill-seeking lifestyle had taken its toll. When he was booked he weighed over 230 pounds. "I was told I could die in prison because of my health issues. I was extremely overweight and my cholesterol was through the roof. That motivated me to start working out.”

Now it would be hard to imagine Marte as either a drug lord or overweight. Marte is handsome, cut and full of passion. Through his journey to self-healing he has successfully tapped into the wellness industry, where the overall gym and health club revenue was $22 billion in 2016. Despite having a solid business plan, Marte faced many challenges in opening up his business.

"It was really difficult. I couldn't get business insurance because of my record but I got invited to the governor's office and I mentioned this. Anyone coming home from prison couldn't get insured so they changed that law in New York.

That was a huge milestone and it's giving lots of people opportunities now,” adds Marte. "I have gone through real estate problems with finding space. I was trying to raise money through people and a lot of people were shutting the door thinking it's just a crazy idea.”

The idea wasn't so crazy after all.

Conbody US-Fitness-Studio-Kette (DW/A.Schwedt)

Successful ConBody graduates get their picture taken in front of the infamous "convict wall" with its typical background and sign.

Beating the odds

The difficulty he faced moving forward post-incarceration is not atypical given the major faults of the American prison system, where success is more of an anomaly than it should be. The rate of reoffending in the US ranges from 44 to 76 percent for state and federal prisons; meaning three out of four people released from federal prison will be arrested again within five years.

While some view this as evidence that criminals do not outgrow criminality, more recent research points to a mix of the profiteering mechanisms of the prison industry, a lack of adequate rehabilitation programs, and limited treatment for mental illness and addiction. In New York state alone, taxpayers spend roughly $66,000 a year per inmate. 

Up until the mid 1970's rehabilitation was a major component of prison policy, but today the main driving force in prisons is punishment. Many question if it is sensible to ignore the potential most convicts have for self-development and reintegration into society. Marte and his team of trainers are a clear example that ex-cons have the capacity to grow, succeed and inspire. 

Conbody US-Fitness-Studio-Kette (DW/A.Schwedt)

The new ConBody fitness center in the luxury store Saks 5th Avenue. Its design resembles the Lower East Side location.

With a third spot set to open in Chelsea, Marte is walking proof that the illegal hustle isn't much different than legal business, it's simply a matter of context. But that isn't what he is thinking about, he just wants to make you sweat, "Trust an ex-con, put your shit down and get moving. It's a trust factor, we are like a family and this breaks down barriers. We push you to the limit, we don't stop working out. No breaks. Keep going.”