I’ve been in and out of jail since I was 13. My last stretch was four years: one at Rikers Island, about two at Greene Correctional Facility, and I bounced around a couple of others. I got locked up for running one of the largest drug delivery services in New York City. I was charged with kingpin conspiracy, a felony for controlled substance.
I got caught with a kilo and a half of cocaine and a whole bunch of money. My team did about 40 direct drug sales to a federal agent. I was making millions as a teenager. It went down in 2009 as one of the most significant cases, because I was young, and everybody working for me — about 20 people — was in their 40’s and 50’s.
My son Cathaniel was 1 when I went in and 5 when I got out. I basically raised him over the phone — talking to him with his first words, helping him with homework, teaching him the ABCs. That’s how I raised him: over the phone and when he would come to visits. Since he grew up with his mom, and didn’t have me around, he’s not athletic like I was as a kid. I just wasn’t there to show him the guy role.
I talked to him on the phone pretty often: every three days. When I was in a prison really far upstate, we had phone limitations. We could only speak on the phone every two weeks for around five minutes at a time, so it was very limited at that time. I sent him pictures. I paid people in prison to draw pictures of me and him. I would have people draw him cartoons that I’d send him.
A lot of inmates make money in prison by selling artwork. The price for a portrait of my son and me varies depending on where you’re at. Rikers Island was more expensive, and it cost 50 bucks. Once you’re upstate, you can get it wholesale, and somebody will do it for like 10-20 bucks. I’ve seen people get portraits of their kids — tattoos on their bodies — for like 25 bucks, whole-body pics.
Some guy taught me how to do a picture frame out of chip bags. I would get a bunch of Doritos, open it up, flip it inside out, and use the metal foil. We’d cut them out in pieces and make a picture frame by interlocking every little piece. Then you tie it up with a little string of thread.
My ex-wife brought my son over at least once a week to visit me at first when I was at Rikers Island. We actually got married at Rikers Island. Then, once I’d gone upstate, the visits became limited. She didn’t drive, so she didn’t have a source of transportation other than the bus to get up there, so I saw my son about once a month. The last year I was in prison, I probably saw him twice the whole year.
On Rikers Island there’s a table in the visiting room inmates can’t cross, and the visits are 2 hours. I would sneak him in food, like, Snickers bars and Reese’s Pieces. I could hug them over the table and have my son sit on my lap, but I couldn’t walk around with him. Once you get upstate, you have more breathing room. They have a playpen area for the kids. I would take him out there, walk around the little house, watch cartoons, hold him, play LEGOs, and read him a book. When I was upstate, they were six-to-eight hour visits and just better.
The problem is that once you have to say goodbye, you can’t see him anymore. That’s when he would cry and be stressed. He would be like “When are you coming home, daddy? I want you to go home! Let’s go home!” And he would try to pull me, and I was like, “I can’t. I can’t.” And he would just start crying.
That’s when that realization hits: “Damn, I’m stuck.” It’s just frustrating. You can’t break out. You can’t do nothing. You’re state property.
Between me and my son it was very hard. That was like a knife being stabbed into my heart. Him seeing me in the situation I was in was very sad for me, and I had this sharp pain in my chest. I was super disappointed. I thought I’d let him down.
My dad was in my life, but he worked a lot. I didn’t really see him a lot, but at least he was in my life. Being a dad for me was like, “Damn, I really messed up. And I can’t do nothing about it. I just got to deal with this situation.”
At the beginning, I was super cold-hearted when I was in the street. I didn’t really care about anything. What really hit me hard was when I got that deep emotion from my son crying in the visiting room. That’s what really made me say I can’t go back; this has to stop. Not only for me, but I got to show him an example and help him out.
Leading By Example
When I grew up, I knew my family loved me, but they never told me they loved me. I stress that fact that I love my son. I hug him and show him way more emotion than I received as a kid. I feel like that’ll keep him out. I spoil the hell out of him, which is not a good thing, but it feels like I missed all this time of his life, so when he asks me for something, I owe him. My ex-wife hates it and says, “Don’t do that.” So I’m sneaky, and I’ll hide it.
Cathaniel is an incredible kid. He’s super smart. He’s going to a really good Catholic school. I was a totally different child than him. I grew up running the streets when I was five years old. He’s sheltered and has the iPad and video games. I was hitting the streets, not going home until late. I was not scared of going downstairs and running around. It’s a whole different generation now.
I take him to my studio. He sees what I’m doing. He sees the transformation that I’ve had. He sees me on TV. He knows my story. He works out with me. He wants to do what I’m doing. Sometimes he tells me to hold the phone and record him because he’s going to try and do pushups or one of the workouts I do. And he’s like a little chubby butterball, but he has fun, and he’s cute.
The best I can do is show him an example of how to be a productive citizen and live the right way. I could be the greatest role model, but it takes just one temptation from some peers for him to fall into the wrong habits. I don’t see it in him, doing anything wrong like I did, but you never know.
He could go to school someday, and one guy will be like, “Hey, you want to smoke some bud?” And he could follow that way of life. The best thing I can do is just show him a good example today and talk to him. At the end of the day, it’s up to Cathaniel.
Coss Marte is an ex-convict who has, since his release, founded ConBody, a successful boot camp-style fitness and nutrition counseling service based on his experience in prison. This article originally appeared on Fatherly
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