This Prison-Themed Gym On The LES Is Run By An Ex-Con

Coss Marte recruits workout clients the same way he used to recruit drug clients—on the sidewalk, with a business card. "When I was hustling on the street I made 10,000 business cards and I went up to people that looked rich and I told them that I had a 24-hour drug delivery service and it worked," he told us recently. "I actually went up to all of the girls that wore yoga pants, and I still do it today."

Marte's workout studio, ConBody (#DoTheTime), opened in January in the basement of a Buddhist temple on Broome Street. It has a prison door and a lineup wall, and the website lists intake details. On Saturday, he's hosting a release party for his first workout videos (the clip below is an excerpt).

In 2009, the NYC Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor described Marte, 30, as the ringleader of a cocaine delivery service that had been raking in $1 million annually. Marte says that, at his peak, he was bringing in $2 million a year, operating a team of 20 dealers selling coke and weed and, in lesser amounts, heroin, ecstasy and acid. At 23, Marte was sentenced to seven years at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York.

He was 5' 8" and 230 pounds, and prison doctors told him there was a good chance he'd die of a heart attack within the next five years. "I said I was not going to die in prison," he recalled. "So I began running the yard and doing dips and I had one guy come up to me and ask me to start working out with him, and it was like the Forrest Gump following."

We talked to Marte this week about solitary confinement, hiring discrimination, and prison-themed marketing.

How did you develop your workout? 

I started working out in my 9x6 prison cell. I was in solitary, in a box 24/7 for 30 days in the summer of 2012. Before that, I had gotten out in 2006, and I gained a lot of weight. The money, you know, and the whole lifestyle and being lazy and driving around. I got my ex-wife pregnant and I grew the same belly she grew and that's how it went down. And that's when I did a Shock program [boot camp prison for nonviolent youthful offenders in NYC], and I basically started doing a lot of exercises I learned from there.

Do you use those exercises in class? 

Those, and exercises I created in solitary. Like up-and-downs where you sit down and stand up, and that simple movement when you do it repetitively on an interval, you really feel it. I also created T-bones, where you kick out and open your legs in a sitting-down position, and jumping jacks, but we do them in a constrained space like if you didn't have room to open up your legs.

"Oh cool, if they can make money in that type of way, and if they're formerly incarcerated people I think that's a great idea for a job opportunity." 

What was it like to come back to the Lower East Side when you got out of prison? 

A lot of people looked at me crazy especially when they seen me hustling and selling drugs and I come out and they're like, "Oh, so you know, when you gonna get back in the game?" A lot of people had this, this-is-not-going-to-work type of face. And I was like you gotta get on board because I'm gonna make this happen.

How did you find studio space? 

Real estate was way difficult. It was one of the hardest things I've ever dealt with, besides prison. A lot of land owners didn't want something prison-y in their retail space. And luckily I had one guy, Michael Mintz, he read about me in the Post last year and he gave me some capital and helped me find real estate. He went up to bat for me a few times with a couple landlords who didn't want to deal with me, and I got lucky with this space we have now.

Why the prison cell design? 

There's no key, so we don't really lock people in there—it's more the aesthetic and getting the brand right. Some people ask dumb questions like "Have you killed anybody," but mostly it's a good way to break down stereotypes with young people who live in the neighborhood who have never come across anybody who's been incarcerated. A lot of people come here because of word of mouth, and they know to expect the aesthetics of a prison.

Have you heard of Jailhouse coffee? It's based in Queens, and it's named after its proximity to Rikers Island. How does that kind of branding compare? 

I saw their delivery van one day and I thought, "Oh cool, if they can make money in that type of way, and if they're formerly incarcerated people I think that's a great idea for a job opportunity." But if it's just, you know, Williamsburg hipsters trying to do that, I don't know if they would have gotten much respect.

So your trainers are all formerly incarcerated? 

My whole mission and movement is to hire as many formerly incarcerated individuals as I can, but I don't discriminate. If they check the box no, they don't have a felony, I can hire them, too.

Do you have any female trainers? 

I got a lady who I was speaking to, and she was running into some situation with her parole officer. It was difficult. Parole makes it a little bit difficult because of the time constraint. Two of my trainers have curfews and I can't get them in here early enough to do morning classes. Most people want to work out early, but when you're on parole you can leave your house from 7:00 in the morning and you have to be home by 9:00 at night, and that's typically when we close up, at 9:00. Some parole officers are cool but some are just assholes.