When Sherrill Roland was in his last year of graduate school at UNC-Greensboro, he was charged for crimes he did not commit in the District of Columbia.
He spent ten and a half months in a jail with a reputation for its poor conditions and inmate treatment. Once he was released, many assumed he would pick back up where he left off and return to life as normal, but Roland could not shake the experience of being behind bars. He decided to channel it into his graduate school work.
He created “The Jumpsuit Project,” where he dons an orange jumpsuit whenever he is on campus at UNC-Greensboro. The public art project provides a visual representation of incarceration in a space where people may not often think about it. It also creates a platform for people impacted by incarceration to share their own stories. Host Frank Stasio talks with Roland about art, jail, and his personal story.
On his early years
I was always drawing when I was little. I had friends who encouraged it once they saw me sketching comic books and magazines and things of that nature. And my art teachers encouraged that as well [...] I really didn’t know anything about college per se. I had uncles and aunts who were like, “What are you doing after high school?” And I was like, “I don’t know?” And they were like, “You’re going to college.”
On waiting for the trial for crimes he did not commit
It was always a gray cloud over everything. Every happy moment--there was always a sense of but there’s a chance I could lose it all. It’s a hard thing to work hard for something you could potentially lose with what I had hanging over my head.
On serving 10 ½ months at the Central Detention Facility in DC
The year that I went in was marked the most suicides in this jail--historic numbers for them. They made the “Washington Post,” because you can hide the fights and the injuries, but you can’t necessarily hide the deaths.
On meeting with new lawyers who said they believed his innocence
I cried a little bit when we were meeting [...] I know I’m innocent, my family knows [...] but to hear that from someone who has the power...I understood then about the power structure. Even in the trial I had no voice, someone had to speak on my behalf. And to have someone who has power come in and tell me they would come and speak for me about my innocence [...] for what all I had served, it just blew my mind that there could be a way.
On why he started “The Jumpsuit Project”
It started with a simple question of what would happen if I wore it? [...] Once I got my name back, I spoke with my lawyers and my family, and we celebrated. And the conversation, statements were made that, “You can pick up where you left off” [...] But in trying to do that and attempting to get my life back I couldn’t figure it out [...] It seemed like I spent so much time hiding this, avoiding it, just lying about it...that it seems that now that I’ve got my name back, why does it make sense for me to continue to lie about it?
On walking around campus in an orange jumpsuit
Sometimes I’m ignored. I get a lot of support… I get a lot of high fives, a lot of hugs [...] and I do have people who run from me, and people who stare and don’t know what to expect. They check the back of my shoulders to see if they see DOC across it [...] It is about the suit as well, but it’s also, I’m an African-American male in an orange jumpsuit, too, and I’m very conscious of that too. I do kind of want to see if this one element of race inside an orange jumpsuit can change people’s perspective.
On hope for the project’s future
I’m not rare. I’m lucky for sure, but there are many more stories out there. There are many more lives that incarceration has affected. I hope to establish a platform or community where other people can share their stories [...] It took one trial for me to get into trouble, but it took at least three for me to get out of it, and I still have more to go. And I’m not the only one.