Coss Marte was locked up in solitary confinement just over a decade ago, serving a prison sentence for drugs. But today he’s the CEO of his own fitness business, just welcomed a newborn with his wife, and is the the focus of Debra Granik’s excellent new docuseries Conbody VS Everybody, premiering today at the Sundance Film Festival.
It’s an incredible turnaround story, and one that didn’t come easy. The six-part series documents the many obstacles that ex-inmates face when they try to contribute to society — but also proves that they can.
Marte hires ex-inmates to teach bootcamp-style workouts, and the recidivism rate of his employees is zero — meaning not a single one of his employees has ended up back behind bars. For comparison, the New York Times notes that by many measures, over 60% of once-incarcerated people end up back behind bars.
Conbody, based in New York City, provides not only an intense bodyweight-based workout for its clients, but a second chance and a family-like support system for its employees.
Marte tells his employees: “If you feel like you have to do anything stupid, or you feel like going across that line where you’re going to bring that recidivism rate up and commit another crime, please — call us. If it’s a money issue, if it’s a housing issue, call us.”
He adds: “We’re here to figure it out. Even if I don’t have the money, you’re gonna sleep on my couch.”
Many people end up back in prison because employers are unwilling to give them a chance — an estimated 60% of people who leave prison remain unemployed a year later, The Times reports. But the criminal justice system can also feel rigged against them.
Granik says the system “grew up and calcified to make rule infractions and breaking laws an industry — a profit-making industry.” For-profit prisons have grown thanks to “industrializing and profiteering from systems of punishment,” she says.
Granik met Marte through a mutual friend at Defy Ventures, a group that helps people who’ve been released in prison to adapt their experiences and skills to the business world. At the time, she was researching a narrative feature about an ex-con.
Marte wasn’t familiar with the Oscar-nominated director of Best Picture nominee Winter’s Bone and the recent Leave No Trace, the breakthrough film for Thomasin McKenzie. But he agreed to let her and her crew follow him with a camera as he tried to drum up business for Conbody on New York’s Lower East Side.
The cameras helped him draw more interest. They also captured the day-to-day setbacks and triumphs Marte experienced as he went from trying to just keep himself above water to helping many other people rebuild their lives and succeed.
“One of the biggest things that they really captured in the film is that when I came home, it was embarrassing. I went from making multi-millions of dollars selling drugs, wearing the nicest clothes and all this stuff, and then coming out to the same neighborhood, talking to the same people.”
But things were different: “You’re not selling drugs anymore. You’re selling fitness.”
He adds: “I humbled myself, but I was motivated to just keep moving and make it happen.”
Coss Marte on Creating Conbody in Solitary
Marte grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s, when drugs and used needles were everywhere. Despite living in poverty, he did well in school, and looked constantly for ways to make money, including buying and reselling baseball cards. His entrepreneurial mindset eventually led to marijuana sales, then cocaine. Soon he ran a booming business.
And then he was arrested.
At the low point of his life, he was locked up, so overweight he was at risk of a heart attack, and sent to solitary confinement. Where he turned everything around.
Living in a six-by-nine cell, he started doing supersets — back to back exercises — using only his bodyweight, since no fitness equipment was available.
“That helped me feel like I was I was free. For that moment, I was moving my body and really taking care of myself.”
He lost 71 pounds in solitary. He also started thinking about how he could share his workout plan with others — and start a business doing it.
“I wrote out basically a short mini-plan, a business plan, about Conbody.”
Why Do Prisoners Get in Such Good Shape?
There’s a cliche about prisoners getting ripped — you see endless scenes in prison movies of inmates benching in the yard. There’s truth to it, Marte says, and not just because inmates have time on their hands.
“In male prisons, I feel like there’s that masculinity, that macho [attitude]— people want to work out. They don’t want to be taken advantage of. So it’s like, I’m going to work out, I’m gonna get big, a nobody’s-gonna- mess-with-me type of deal.
“And then there’s also this camaraderie,” he adds. “A whole bunch of groups of friends that I’ve met throughout the time that I was incarcerated, we just felt like, ‘This is our time to meditate and to work out together and not feel like we’re incarcerated.’ We push each other to new heights, new levels.”
“Also endorphins, or course,” adds Granik, sharing what people interviewed in her docuseries have pointed out. “Endorphins feel really really good. If you do one thousand cherry pickers, you have some endorphins. You were keeping your brains feeling the best they could feel in confinement, at times.”
Conbody Welcomes Everybody
Conbody tries to recreate the camaraderie, teamwork and determination of people on the inside, doing their best, for people on the outside.
In the process, it brings together people who might not otherwise meet. At one point in the docuseries, several of Marte’s employees note that the clients are often white, female and upscale, the main clientele for group fitness classes.
Sometimes, the classes are a way for people to cross lines and learn about people different from themselves.
“It’s a way to get individuals who’ve never met anybody who’s been incarcerated to feel some type of empathy towards people in the criminal justice space,” Marte says.
Other times, people turn out not to be so different.
“I’ve had individuals, young white females, that had dark pasts — their parents have been incarcerated, or their brothers have been incarcerated, and they’ve never spoken about this,” he says. “And they felt comfortable coming to us and saying, ‘You know, I’ve never said this to anyone, except probably my therapist, but I’ve had a family member that’s been incarcerated — and I believe in second chances.'”
Conbody VS Everybody, which premieres two of its six episodes at Sundance, is seeking a distribution deal.
Main image: A still from Conbody VS Everybody by Debra Granik, an official selection of the Episodic Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Editor’s Note: Corrects headline.