Wrongfully Incarcerated Artist Finished Grad School Wearing An Orange Jumpsuit

"Once I saw what goes on in jail, how we were treated, I will never forget. We need to have more conversations about it."
Photo by Todd Turner

In 2012, artist Sherrill Roland received a call from a detective with a warrant for his arrest. Roland was an art student at the time, preparing to begin graduate school at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Roland, who claimed he had not committed any crime, was in utter disbelief.

He showed up for his trial in October 2013, five days after turning 29. Roland was accused of four misdemeanors and was found guilty on all counts. A D.C. judge sentenced him to 13 months in prison.

Roland spent just over 10 months in the Central Detention Facility, a space described by lawyers as a “human-rights disaster.” A 2015 report prepared by the Washington Lawyer’s Rights Committee for Civil Rights and Urban affairs described the prison’s condition as “alarming,” citing potentially dangerous structural problems like pests, mold and crumbling walls.

The account concluded that the “appalling conditions of confinement in D.C. prison facilities, especially in light of their disproportionate impact on African-Americans, are a key criminal justice and civil rights issue in Washington, DC.” Black men, including Roland, make up approximately half of the incarcerated population.

Photo by Laath Martin

Roland was freed from prison in August 2014. One year later, however, new evidence emerged that ultimately proved his innocence. The judge who’d overseen his trial two years earlier threw out the convictions, and all records of his arrest and prosecution, at Roland’s request, were sealed. In an effort to move forward, those convictions are no longer disclosed or discussed by Roland or anyone else involved with the case.

It was as if his entire incarceration had never happened ― to everyone except Roland himself and the people who love him.

Despite the fact that Roland’s wrongful conviction was expunged from his record, the experience left him shattered and confused. He wondered, “If I’m not the same person I was, who am I now? Who is the new me?” Ultimately, he decided to address this seemingly irresolvable question, of how to return back to art school after incarceration, through art.

In an ongoing social justice performance piece titled “The Jumpsuit Project,” Roland wears an orange jumpsuit to spark conversations about incarceration and its impact on individuals, families and communities. He started wearing the suit after returning to UNCG in 2016. Unsure of how to re-enter the academic safe space after serving prison time, he opted to wear his experience and his trauma on his sleeve.

It’s jarring to see a man in a orange jumpsuit roaming public spaces. Roland told HuffPost that confused bystanders occasionally asked him where his guard was. This level of discord is heightened on college campuses, known for their insularity. The same goes for the art institutions where Roland occasionally performs. When he enters a museum, he explained, “the vibe changes instantly.” The suit manipulates the space in which it exists, making room for new, often intimate, interactions between virtual strangers. Strangers approach Roland to discuss his experiences and share their own, chipping away at the estrangement that incarceration can bring out.

Roland graduated from UNCG last week with a Master’s degree, and he wore his jumpsuit to receive his diploma. This month, the artist will spend three days in front of the Brooklyn Public Library, performing “The Jumpsuit Project” for participants and passersby.

Read on for an interview with Roland about the origins of the piece:

Photo by Allison Meridin

How would you describe your art before you were incarcerated?

I had a design background. I was focused on making objects with my hands and also liked the quickness of sketching things out with digital software. When I was going into my grad school program in 2012, I was making work based off narratives from my home in Asheville, stories from my mother’s generation.

In 2012 you were issued a warrant for your arrest. What was your life in general like before this moment?

Going into grad school I was very focused. I thought I had everything figured out. I was going to get this MFA and go teach at a collegiate level. I planned to work on my own art during the summertime. I thought I had my path all laid out.

What was it like to receive a call from a detective requesting you turn yourself in?

I remember being at home ― it was the week before I was going to move to Greensboro. I was in my mother’s room, but she was away at the time, maybe at work or something. When I got the call I was completely shocked. It was crazy being alone and not being able to reach out to my mother when it happened.

What were your expectations after your court hearing? Do you remember how it felt when you were found guilty?

I had entirely expected to not be found guilty. I didn’t get any of my things in order to prepare me to go to jail. It was inconceivable. I couldn’t imagine it. I didn’t know how to plan for it. I didn’t know how it would go.

During the trial, everyone was trying to stay positive. I’ve never felt so blank-headed. I had no idea what was going on. I was so scared. It was hard to think about what could be taken away from me — everything I had accomplished, my family, my friends. Every day something new popped into my head, something I would potentially be giving up. I tried not to think about stuff like that.

Photo by Olivia Bond

During your time in jail, did you make art?

I came up with ideas for art projects I could do while I was in there, but my perspective on art shifted a bit. I lost the taste for making things for myself. I just couldn’t do it for some reason. I drew for other inmates ― portraits of their families that they could send as gifts. It’s hard to put a value on how much those cards meant to the people receiving them. We on the inside did not have anything to give. It is really powerful creating something for someone’s significant other or child, helping them get a gift from someone who can’t obtain one any other way. I was willing to make things as long as they meant something. They had a different type of value and weight.

Did you have any other outlets to communicate or express what you were going through?

Writing was my therapeutic release. My letters going out were the only things that were not looked at. Letters coming in were opened and read, our phone and video calls were recorded. I would write at least five pages for each letter. A lot of time I was on lockdown, so I couldn’t have phone conversations. I would end up just writing and writing. I had no indication I was going to get my freedom back. I was facing the fact that I had to deal with this wrongful conviction.

Were there other habits or tactics you developed in jail to make your time there more tolerable?

I tried to stay connected. The Washington Post circulated inside there. Somebody would find it and pass it around. I was the only one who looked at the Art and Style sections. I found ways like that, to get what I wanted. For example, most people hated vegetables but loved cake, but I hated the cake, so I traded for vegetables. I was always trying to trying to figure out ways I could succeed, ways to stay connected to who I was before I came in.

Tell me about when you first began thinking about “The Jumpsuit Project.”

After my conviction was overturned, I just sat at home for a very long time. I spent a long time waiting to see what I was going to do with my life. How am I going to accept this experience? I figured out how much it would cost to go around the world on a small budget. I dreamt of getting away. I had a very strong reaction against sitting still. I had been restricted in so many ways. I just wanted nobody to tell me what to do. I brought that idea and another idea to a professor of mine. The other idea, which was kind of unformed at the time, was “The Jumpsuit Project.”

What did the idea look like in its early stages?

It came to me in a dream. It was more of a question than an idea. I’m used to thinking as a designer, so when I see a project, I see an end product. But here, for the first time, there was no answer. It was uncharted territory for sure.

Sheryl Oring was my teacher at the time. I remember going to her house being like ― What would it be like if I wore an orange jumpsuit on campus? I was contemplating ― If I’m not the same person I was, who am I now? Who is the new me? I used to think I had a certain safety on campus. I was naive. I see the world totally different now. Who am I on this campus? I felt like I carried the burden of my experience anyway. What if I just wore an orange jumpsuit?

I had trouble figuring out how to explain it, but right away she said: “That’s it. You should definitely do that.” Immediately I tried to take it back. Sometimes you get an idea and you worry it might be too much for you. You’re not sure if you can handle it. I think the first thing I said was, “Well, I have to talk to my mother first.”

Photo by Todd Turner

What was it like re-entering your college campus wearing an orange jumpsuit?

The very first day my teacher Sheryl walked with me to the library. It was the most terrifying thing I have ever done. I thought, I am about to step out there into this world and tell people I just went to jail. I had received my bill of innocence in 2015 and started the project in 2016, so it was all very fresh.

I remember this guy coming out of the library, checking me out, and literally walking around me. It didn’t even phase him. I have had all kinds of reactions ― people bolt the other way, people side step, give me space. Sometimes I’ve frightened people.

Do you follow specific guidelines while wearing the suit?

There are restrictions while in my suit. I treat the academic institution like a correctional institution, so I’m not allowed to stop outside and talk. I can only go to point A and B, one classroom to the next. If you want to talk to me you have to escort me; we can’t stop and chat. But once I’m in the library or in an enclosed space, I am free to talk. Whenever that happened, people started to gather around. Mostly, as quick as I can, I tell my story. I get a lot more hugs and support than negative looks. But it happens. There are some people sneaking by me and taking pictures, people laughing. Some people clearly have no idea know what I’m doing.

As far as the conversations go, are there certain ideas or talking points that come up again and again?

A lot of people come up and say, “My brother is going through the same thing,” or someone else in their lives. I had family members who had been locked up before, but they didn’t want to talk about it. And when I talk about my experience with my friends and family, they can’t totally get it because they weren’t there. Then I start think, Am I alone? But once I started talking, I met people who had so much to share. It opened up a whole other support system. People were willing to share so much, in fact they needed to share it, they just didn’t think they’d have an opportunity to, to talk to someone that got it.

Photo by Todd Turner

What misconceptions did you have about incarceration before experiencing what it was like yourself?

When I went in, I was trying to separate myself. “I’m not supposed to be in here, I am innocent, I am not supposed to be with these other guys.” I ended up realizing that I was no different than anyone. They dehumanize you in there. No one has a name. Me saying I’m innocent — well, a lot of people think they’re innocent. The correctional officers didn’t have time to hear any of that.

I remember this old timer in there, he got sentenced 20 to life for murder. He came to jail temporarily for a parole hearing and they housed him in with us. He said, “I know you say you’re innocent, but there has to be a reason why you are here. Open your eyes and see what’s here.” At first I was like, “What? That makes no sense!” But I started to take in all the people here. Everybody was going through the same things. Everyone was trying to deal with having their friends and families taken away. We were each other’s only support system.

I had this idea of what the word criminal meant. But when I was listening to this guy, who was in for murder, it was a big perspective change. Everyone in there is a human being. People have made mistakes and learned from them. When you have nothing, you need each other. One day, after I’d been wearing the same clothes for two months, some of the guys collectively got me fresh T-shirts and underwear and socks. Once I saw what goes on in jail, how we were treated, I will never forget. We need to have more conversations about it. I don’t believe anybody has to go through what I went through to get this perspective. I got my innocence restored. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity.

You will perform at the Brooklyn Public Library. Do you expect the performance to differ from the UNCG performance in any specific way?

I’ll alter the performance to fit a public setting. Every place has its own culture, so in a way, it’s up to the community that comes through the library. It can go a number of ways. I just hope it goes safely. I’m interested to hear the stories. It’s not always about jail itself, but about overcoming things. Sometimes it’s just about getting through a struggle.

How long do you plan to continue this project? Do you envision it changing shape in the future?

I want to take a break from the performance part and make tangible objects to go along with the performance. I have other things I want to get out. I don’t want to drop the opportunity for conversation the jumpsuit has provided. It offers a network for people to come together. I’m going to continue working on it, making it more of an entity as opposed to thinking about just me in a suit. A place where I can start organizing things. An opportunity to share.

Photo by Todd Turner

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Roland will perform “The Jumpsuit Project” from Tuesday, May 23, until Thursday, May 25, at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch. Follow the project on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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