Editor’s Note: Coss Marte is a former drug dealer turned entrepreneur. Marte connected with nonprofit Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship, employment and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated people and was able to start his own business through a microloan. Marte is now owner of a successful fitness business called ConBody. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
I was raised in a drug-infested community. I remember people shooting up heroin and other drugs in my building before I even started going to school.
At 6 years old, my two older sisters came from the Dominican Republic to live in my home, which meant less resources and space. There were six of us living in a tenement apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My mom would dress me in my sisters’ hand-me-downs, which was embarrassing.
From an early age my goal was to break the cycle of poverty. People would ask me, “What did I want to be when I grew up?” I would tell them I wanted to be rich. My first opportunity to get out of poverty was through selling drugs.
I began smoking marijuana by the age of 11. By 13, I made my first sell. My role models were guys on the corner who wore the big chains and dressed in the best clothes. So, I purchased my first ounce to sell and took it to school. I knew the smoking crowd would buy my product because of the convenience and quality. Soon I was working my own corner, where I pitched drugs with other local dealers who respected my hustle.
I sold all day and all night.
Eventually, I had a cocaine distribution ring in New York City.
I reached my goal of becoming rich by age 19, making more than a million dollars a year.
I was only 13 when I was arrested for the first time, for smoking weed in my local park. I received just a slap on the wrist. From then on, I was in and out of jail for the next 10 years, serving a total of six years. I was charged with running a cocaine distribution service in the city. I supervised over 20 people, and I developed routes to deliver drugs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I thought I had everything under control until I was caught by federal agents and sentenced to seven years in prison.
My personal transformation happened behind bars.
I was sent to “the box” after an altercation with a prison officer. After I was beaten, I was shoved into the cell and forced to do nothing but think. I asked myself “Why?” How did I end up here?
Meals and showers were minimal because the officer put the word out to punish me. I developed a routine of reading books, sleeping and writing letters all day. I wrote a 10-page letter to my family and realized I didn’t have a stamp to send it, which was frustrating and humbling.
After I had been in solitary for 2½ weeks, my sister wrote to me and suggested I read Psalm 91 from the Bible. My whole perspective on life changed. I began to believe that my purpose was to give back instead of destroying individuals around me. I realized selling drugs was wrong. What I was doing was not only affecting my son and family, but the thousands of people I sold drugs to as well.
The web of destruction I was creating was so awful that I asked God “How can I give back?”
I turned to fitness. Early on in my sentence, prison doctors told me that I could die if I didn’t get my cholesterol levels down. I started exercising, and I lost 70 pounds in six months. The prison yard became my training facility, where I helped other inmates lose more than a thousand pounds combined.
It was super difficult when I came home. I didn’t have any place to go and ended up sleeping on my mom’s couch for a year.
Then I found Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that helps ex-cons start their own businesses.
Now, my life has come full circle. I started ConBody, where I run a prison-style boot camp and hire formerly incarcerated individuals to teach fitness classes. I’m now giving others the opportunity to be treated as humans and break down barriers between ex-convicts and the general population. That’s my goal: bringing people together to show we are not scary, we are normal.