Get Fit, Prison-Style, Without Doing Time

They’re killing time before class and Sultan Malik muses, “I just feel like I’m catching up.”

And caught up he has. After 14 years in prison, Malik has now graduated from college and is working as a fitness instructor at ConBody.

ConBody
via Facebook

Calling out orders like a drill instructor, he leads the class through a series of burpees, jumping jacks and squat jacks.

This isn’t your regular fitness class. ConBody is a fitness program founded, staffed, designed and run by former prisoners like Malik and the program’s charismatic and impressive founder Coss Marte.

“Let’s go! Come on,” Malik shouts. It’s three days before Christmas, but Malik’s not slacking off.

Marte and Malik both did time—they’re some of the cons in ConBody—but they met on the outside, when a newly released Malik was looking for help putting together a resume and Marte was working as a resume maker.

“It was an instantaneous bond,” Malik said.

Malik was doing time not for drugs, but for robbing drug spots à la The Wire’s Omar. Marte, on the other hand, was selling drugs. A Manhattan native, Marte was arrested in 2009 in a bust big enough that the website of the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor still has a post about it in the “Significant Case Archive.”

Marte wasn’t even a teenager yet when he started dealing.

“At 11 years old, my cousin popped out a bag of weed and was like, ‘You wanna smoke?’” he recounted. “We rolled up a nasty blunt and it was lookin’ like a football, but we smoked it and we got high.”

Marte wasn’t just interested in getting stoned, though; he quickly realized that the better high was selling. But, with selling drugs came the possibility of arrest – and soon that possibility became a reality. “I was in-and-out of jail since I was 13,” he said. “The first time I was arrested right on the block in the local park of the neighborhood. The second time I was 15 or 16 and I did about a year in a drug program.”

Then, he went to the big leagues when he went to state prison in 2006, and again in 2010, after his 2009 arrest. During one of his stints behind bars, he came up with a plan for a better way to sell drugs. “I thought of the idea of having all my friends dress up in suits and ties and that way we won’t get stopped by the police. We won’t look like we’re selling drugs,” he said. So when he got out, that’s just what he did.

He made up business cards and started dressing nice, in hopes of evading police attention. In the process, he built up a booming business. By the time he was 19, Marte said, he was pulling in $2 million a year. Now, he’s out of the drug world—but he said the allure of being a drug dealer and enjoying that kind of wealth can be almost as addictive as the drugs themselves.

“It’s definitely an addiction. I mean, it was something that kept me up three days at a time,” he said. “I was super money hungry, going out there with the thrill of driving down the street with a whole bunch of stuff and the cops behind you. It’s a freedom as well, the freedom of not having a job and working for yourself even though you feel incarcerated in that world.”

So what turned it around for Marte?

“I hit rock bottom,” he said. After his last arrest, Marte continued selling drugs in prison and experimented with some pills, but then he got sent to solitary confinement—when he should have had two months left before his release.

“That really hit me hard. Not being in the cell, but knowing that I had only two months to go home,” he said. “I felt like I’d been doing the right thing; I was ready to go home. I was playing the victim,” Marte admitted.

“I wrote out everything I was feeling and I wrote to my family to tell them I wouldn’t be out in two months. It was a 10-page letter and I didn’t have a stamp so I just left it on the little table in my cell and didn’t send it. I received a letter a week saying, ‘We found out where you at and you should read Psalm 91.’” Marte was not, at that point, very religiously inclined, so at first he did not heed the advice.

Then, he decided to give it a go. “After a couple days I decided to open the Bible and read that and a stamp fell out of the Bible and that sent chills down my spine when I think about it now,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘I can’t go back. I need to do something different.’”

It was his awakening, his moment of clarity. “At that point it hit, and I was really regretful. I wanted to know how I could give back – I’d destroyed so many other people’s lives,” he said. “And then I began to realize I was already helping these guys in the yard, working out and things.”

When Marte was released in 2013, he had a new lease on life.

“When I came home I started doing a boot camp in the local park,” he said. It was the same park he’d been arrested in as a kid. Although he’d considered the possibility while still behind bars, at first he didn’t really think that making prison-style fitness into a career would pan out.

“Initially, I wasn’t charging for classes and then I got my first customer by accident. I picked up this dirty old pipe that was on the ground and stuck it between fences at the park and I was doing pull-ups because there were no pull-up bars. Then one morning I’m training people and one guy jumps on the bar and tries to do a pull-up and I’m like, ‘Yo, that’s mine! You got to pay me to use that!’ And he said, ‘How much do you charge?’” Marte hadn’t really thought it through and just threw out a number: $200. The man agreed and became Marte’s first client.

via Twitter

From there, Marte picked up more clients and gave more thought to what a structured program would look like. His workouts don’t require equipment; they’re things you could actually do in a prison cell or in the rec yard. In part, it’s based on the exercise-intenseLakeview “shock” incarceration program. 

Also, Marte made the decision to make sure his hiring practices were in line with the concept of ConBody. “I came up with the idea of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals to teach our classes because those are the people that I knew and they needed help,” he said. Accordingly, Marte has hired trainers with all sorts of records—from robbery to drug dealing.

He formally launched a business with the help of Defy Ventures and by June 2015, Marte was able to make ConBody into his full-time job.

At first, ConBody was renting rooms in other buildings, but on Jan. 1 they opened their own space on Broome Street. The inside of ConBody plays on the prison theme, with a front desk made of cinderblocks, a real prison gate for a door and art showing a prison escape on one wall.

For Marte, the location of the studio is symbolic: “It’s right on the block where I used to sell drugs at.”

His life—and his life rebooted—sounds almost unimaginable. Or, as his girlfriend and ConBody co-conspirator Jennifer Shaw pointed out, it all sounds almost like the start of a joke.

“It’s like, ‘A couple of drug dealers and a bank robber walked into a fitness studio,’” she said with a laugh.

But it’s no joke—they really did, and they’ve been wildly successful.

This story was originally published on The Fix.

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New York City Moves To Expand Availability Of Naloxone

In the wake of a rising death toll in the opioid overdose epidemic, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan to make the overdose antidote, naloxone, more readily accessible.

Naloxone, an opioid antagonist also known under the brand name Narcan, will be available for around $50 over the counter at Rite Aid and independent drug stores in the city, according to Newsday.

De Blasio and other city officials announced the change in a press conference on Monday.

According to city data, opioid-related overdose deaths have increased by 56% since 2010. “The deaths are what we all struggle to avoid … but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said de Blasio. “For every death, there are literally hundreds who struggle with addiction.”

City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett echoed that sentiment. “In order to recover, you need to stay alive,” she said.

Technically, naloxone is still a prescription medication, but because Bassett announced a citywide standing order to dispense the drug—something Baltimore did earlier this year—it is available over the counter.

Last year, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton announced that he planned to have the city’s entire force trained and equipped with naloxone. And New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a statewide program to fund more naloxone for police departments statewide.

In addition to making naloxone more available to the public, the city will spend $750,000 to distribute naloxone kits to New York City drug prevention programs. On a similar note, the city announced plans to train 1,000 more medical professionals to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug that is used for opioid replacement therapy.

At the press conference, 21-year-old James Brenker of Staten Island spoke in support of the initiative. He said that his own life was saved by naloxone when he overdosed on heroin and oxycodone.

“I felt like no one cared. I know a lot of addicts feel that way,” he said.

This story was originally published on The Fix.

8 Major Problems with Drug Treatment in Prison

Drug offenders have among the highest recidivism rates of all prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 76.9% of drug offenders get arrested for a new crime within five years of their release. That’s a lower recidivism rate than for property crimes (82.1%) but higher than for public order offenses (73.6%) or violent offenses (71.3%).

Although jails typically don’t offer drug treatment, many state prisons do—but the above data is for state prisons. So what’s going wrong? Why isn’t prison drug treatment working?

There’s no easy answer to that question. However, a prison drug counselor, a drug policy expert, and two former inmates did their best to answer it by offering to identify what they see as some of the current problems with prison drug treatment:

1. Treatment is not offered soon enough.

Many county jails don’t offer any treatment, so inmates typically have to wait until they get to state prison until they get treatment. For some inmates, though, it’s a much longer wait than that.

“If you have some percent come in with drug problems, they still don’t get the treatment for 10 years and three dirty urines and two years in the box [solitary confinement],” said Will, a former New York State prisoner who asked only to be identified by his first name.

What Will is alluding to is the fact that inmates with shorter sentences necessarily get priority when it comes to placement in the state’s 90-day drug treatment program. As a result, those with longer terms typically have to wait—sometimes for years—before there’s room.

Although that makes sense in terms of logistics and scheduling, it’s problematic in terms of addiction and recovery.

2. After treatment, prisoners are returned to general population. 

This can be a problem because it means that people who have begun taking steps toward recovery are regularly mixing with people who may still be more interested in living a criminal lifestyle.

That’s one of the problems that Frank, a prison drug counselor who asked to have his name changed to avoid losing his job, sees in New York facilities.

In the Empire State, Frank explained, there is one state facility that is dedicated entirely to housing inmates involved in drug treatment programs. That would be ideal for all prison drug treatment programs—but it would still leave a problem as far as where to house recovering addicts who have completed treatment, he said.

“I have someone on my unit that has five years left—why send them back to general population? When you put them back in GP, anything that you’ve gained you lose because you’re with people who know nothing about treatment,” he said.

Seth Ferranti, who served more than two decades in federal prison, concurred. While behind bars, Ferranti completed a 10-month Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). He said, “RDAP worked like this: you finished the program, graduated, and went to [a] halfway house, so you took the program at the door. That is how it should work because it is counterproductive to put someone who just went through the program back in a harmful environment that can lead to relapse.”

3. The staff aren’t necessarily helpful.

Both Ferranti and Frank said that a lot of the staff just don’t care or are overworked – and that can make meaningful treatment difficult.

“Everyone is just trying to do their job and go home and if you are seriously trying to recover you need a good support network in prison and out,” Ferranti said. “The idea and theories are good but the practice isn’t.”

One of the problems that Frank sees in New York is that it’s really difficult to fire incompetent or under-performing counselors. They’re state jobs.

“You could be a pretty fucked-up counselor and not get fired,” he said.

4. Not everyone wants to get help.

This is perhaps to be expected in a prison treatment environment—and it’s something that is true in a lot of court-mandated treatment environments—but it’s definitely a problem.

“I got a good experience out of the program because I wanted to come back to society,” said Ferranti. “I wanted to be prepared but prison is a hard place to carry that type of attitude. I had been in a long time and prisoners respected me so I could carry it how I wanted but someone fresh into prison and trying to change is going to have a hard time with all the peer pressure and politics.”

5. Lack of opioid replacement therapy options.

Typically, jails and prisons do not offer opioid replacement therapy. Some offer the short-term use of methadone or Suboxone for detox purposes, but even that is rare. Suboxone or methadone maintenance is nearly unheard of, which is particularly unfortunate considering that some doctors consider it the standard of care for treating opiate addiction and preventing relapse.

“When it comes to treatment for people who have been addicted to heroin or other opiates, making available [Suboxone or methadone] maintenance is pivotally important,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “There’s very good research about it out there. It is standard operating procedure in many other countries around the world. Unfortunately, there are virtually no prison systems that allow it in the U.S.”

6. Placement in the program is often based more on crime than need.

In New York prisons, placement in treatment is typically mandated for drug-related crimes, whether or not the individual has a drug problem.

Will said that he still got something out of the program, but wouldn’t describe himself as someone who necessarily needed drug treatment in the first place.

“They’re putting you in based on your crime and your record,” he said. “If you didn’t cop to some kind of addiction they were basically going to kick you out.”

From a counselor’s perspective, that can be problematic.

“Sometimes we’re getting people that didn’t use but sold,” Frank said, “and it’s very hard because they can’t relate.”

7. There is very little positive reinforcement.

Frank said that, in New York, the prison drug treatment programs are based on the therapeutic community model, which relies on modifying behavior using consequences and rewards.

“TCs believe in consequences, but they also believe in rewarding people if they do good. They used to be able to have [a] pizza party or movie nights, but we can’t anymore. So we can punish them but we can’t reward them.

“Now, the best we can do is let them take a day off group. You’ve got to have rewards—that’s what TCs are based on, consequences and rewards.”

8. Fundamentally, the treatment is part of a punishment. 

“I don’t believe that there’s any time that you can prescribe therapy as a punishment and have it be truly therapeutic,” Will said. “As long as your incentive is not personal well-being, it’s going to be bullshit. With that said, what can the prison do? They could offer a voluntary program.”

Frank concurred: “Prison is not conducive to helping people change.

“It’s a proven fact that prison doesn’t do anything for drug addiction—nothing. Then when they come back they’re recidivists. If you say prison is for punishment, fine. But if you say it’s so people don’t come back then you’ve got to do something so they don’t come back.”

This story was originally published on The Fix.