Incarceration & Bids for Survival

To her kitchen staff, Clyde is the manager from hell—but no other place is willing to hire, much less respect, the previously incarcerated. Montrellous is a whirlwind of creative energy—a Black man who feels and loves deep in his gut. Rafael is a young, Afro-Latino romantic; Letitia is a sharp and careful Black mother who distrusts all gentle words. Jason, the newest hire, is the white man who stands out—covered in racist white supremacist tattoos, he is itching to carve himself a home. Despite the spectrum of their identities, they are all the same in Clyde’s kitchen—returning citizens and survivors of prison, America’s great equalizer. 

According to Eric Borsuk of The Marshall Project, those in the carceral system must “[play] by the same rules. Although many factors are out of your control, you have to walk a fine line between mettle and modesty to survive, all while trying not to draw too much attention to yourself.” For some, this is a humbling experience, but for most, it is psychologically fraught. One of the few ways to cope is to find a “bid”—an activity to ground oneself, to distract from the traumatic ways that prison changes a body. Weightlifting, cooking, smuggling, reading—deciding on a bid is a personal choice, yet a communal necessity. “[Our bids became] an ideal we strived toward that paradoxically only seemed attainable within prison. We needed to give ourselves up to this thing,” Borsuk says, “this way of being.” 

Prison is an unfathomably lonely place. One’s identity before and during incarceration are always separate: you are an individual in one setting and indistinctive in the other. For this reason, survivors of the carceral system will often base their sense of self on their relationships with other inmates. When someone leaves the institution, it throws off the fragile ecosystem among the people they’ve left behind. Without a safety net, those who remain after a peer has gone are left isolated and exposed by a system designed to ostracize and punish them for being incarcerated in the first place. 

But being othered within the carceral system is still easier than the consequences of being isolated from the mainstream culture and economy outside it. After cultivating the skills to live with any comfort behind bars, survivors are then thrown back out into the wider society without any tools to “be better,” leaving them more vulnerable than they were when they were consigned to prison in the first place. Without proper rehabilitation centers, an improvement of social conditions, or transformative solutions for reintegration, the majority of people who leave incarceration cannot meet their basic needs and become reincarcerated. About 44% of citizens released from incarceration return before their first year out of prison; 68% return within three years; 77% return within five. 

If prison puts incarcerated people on a level playing field, specific communities are more vulnerable to being incarcerated in the first place. Cycles of divestment enforce poor social conditions for many communities of color; underfunded school districts and public services, discriminatory city zoning, and predatory lending practices in particular pipeline the members of Black community into the carceral system. Within the queer community, a lack of federal protections perpetuates a desperate pattern of sex work for income, leaving members at risk of mass incarceration. The most vulnerable populations in America occur where these identities intersect; 47% of Black trans people have spent time behind bars. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, Black trans women are incarcerated at a rate of ten times that of the general American population. 

While it may be easy to attribute the difficulties that Clyde and her kitchen staff face to the traumas they describe, there is an unmistakable sense of community found in their vulnerability and honesty, for those who choose to connect. It is not the licking of wounds that makes these characters beautiful—it’s the deep-chested hollers, the brushing of hands, the subtleties of being. Together, they perform the ultimate bid: outside their jail cells, they banter and breathe. 

Dom Ocampo