GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Three years ago this fall, Sherrill Roland was in a good place.
He had just started his second and final year of graduate school at UNC-Greensboro. And he had his very own Art 120 class, where he taught basic principles of design to freshmen.
On a Thursday, a day after his 29th birthday, Roland told his students not to come to class the following Tuesday. He and his buddies would be extending his birthday celebration by a few days. He would see them in a week.
What Roland didn’t know on that Thursday in 2013 was that he wouldn’t be coming back to UNCG next week or next month or even next year.
It would be three years before Roland came back to campus - an innocent man with a sealed court record, a man changed by a year in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. When he returned, he would wear a one-piece orange jumpsuit every day until graduation.
His choice of clothing is performance art, something that will help him get his master’s degree in art. The jumpsuit project is also something else: a symbol of the far-reaching effects of the criminal justice system on so many people - the inmates, their families, their friends, their classmates - regardless of who they are.
“It’s to be a daily reminder that things happen - that incarceration happens every day,” Roland said of the project. “It could be anybody. It could be me today, it could be you tomorrow. . This happened while I was a student.”
He snaps his fingers.
“And in a blink of an eye, I was gone.”
An innocent man
Roland grew up in Asheville, raised by his mother and a cadre of aunts and uncles. College wasn’t an if in his house but a where. After graduating from Asheville High School in 2002 with a high B average, Roland chose UNCG.
Roland thought he would study to be an architect, but college life didn’t take at first. His grades were poor - “I still had that high school mentality,” he said - and UNCG sent him home after spring break.
Back in Asheville, he got a job, enrolled in community college and got his grades up. Two years later, he was back at UNCG.
College went much better this time. Roland shared a house a block from campus with three friends from Asheville. He was always good at drawing, so he focused on that in college. He made dean’s list, spent a semester in England and in 2009 got his bachelor’s degree in art with a concentration in design.
Longtime friend Takele “TK” Woldu - the two grew up together in Asheville and lived together in college - said Roland is quiet and humble.
“That’s just Sherrill in general,” said Woldu, who graduated from UNCG in 2008. “He’s not a tell-you-what-I’m-doing-all-the-time type guy. He’s an artist. He’ll show you what he’s working on at the end.”
After graduation, Roland moved back home and got a job at a warehouse and as a counselor at a juvenile home. At night, he worked on his drawings.
His passion was still design. In the summers, he taught web design and game design at camps in Virginia, Baltimore, New York and Washington.
In 2012, he came back to UNCG for graduate school. He had started working with found objects, mostly cardboard that he turned into roosters and shoes and portraits. The goal was to get his master of fine arts in studio art and then teach in college
Shortly before he started his master’s program, a detective in Washington called to say there was a warrant for his arrest. He would have to turn himself in.
Roland missed his first day of graduate school to fly to D.C. The charge was a single felony. Roland won’t say what it is except that it was nonviolent and based on somebody’s lie. There was no bail set, and Roland returned to Greensboro.
The trial date was set for Oct. 7, 2013, five days after his 29th birthday. Roland told almost no one about the court date - not his UNCG students, not his professors, not his classmates. He told close friends only that the court date was no big deal, just some procedural stuff for a minor thing.
Roland wasn’t worried. His previous run-ins with the law had been over traffic tickets a decade ago. Plus he was innocent. How bad could this be?
Prosecutors later dropped the felony charge to four misdemeanors. After a two-day trial, a D.C. judge found Roland guilty on all four charges and sentenced him to 13 months in jail.
Without a chance to hug his mother, Roland found himself in handcuffs as bailiffs led him away from court. Suddenly, the UNCG grad student had a jail cell and a prison number.
His friends were devastated.
“There are people who belong in jail,” Woldu said. “He’s not one of those people, but he ended up there.”
‘A hard place every day’
Roland, now 32, uses a few words to describe jail. Terrible. Dehumanizing. Scary.
Roland spent 10 months and two weeks in the Central Detention Facility, better known as the D.C. Jail.
The facility held about 1,500 inmates during Roland’s stint there. Some, like him, were serving out sentences of about a year or less. Others were awaiting trial on serious felony charges - murder, assault, rape, drug-dealing - that could lead to long sentences, even life.
The fall Roland got there, The Washington Post was documenting the deplorable conditions at the jail that contributed to 165 suicide attempts in two years. That same fall, the District of Columbia settled a long-running lawsuit that alleged the jail unnecessarily strip-searched prisoners and held inmates weeks and months past their release dates.
Roland remembers not being allowed outside into the prison yard until April, six months after he got there. He recalls being hungry because the inmates who brought him his meals would sometimes take food off the trays. If the jail was locked down and no meals were brought, he and his roommate shared a cup of ramen, made with the lukewarm water from the sink in their cell.
Boredom was a problem, so every inmate, Roland included, wanted to be part of a work crew. But that involved filling out an application - and hoping your pencil didn’t break - and catching the attention of a jail guard who might or might not file that piece of paper with the right person. (Roland eventually got on with the in-house detail, responsible for cleaning and painting the cell block.)
His time in jail cut him off from normal human contact. Roland got two 45-minute visits per week. Jail visits were done by video, with Roland in one building and his visitor in another. Otherwise, Roland kept in touch through letters.
Roland missed the birth of his daughter while he was in jail. He also couldn’t go to the funerals of his grandmothers. One died while he was locked up; the other passed soon after he was freed from jail but still confined to Washington.
“It’s a hard place every day,” Roland said. “I used to tell myself congratulations at the end of the day in the sense that we made it through one day.”
But Roland noticed some good on the inside. When he moved to a new jail block early in his stay, his new cellmate gave him clean T-shirts and underwear. Roland remembers one inmate studied an algebra book so he could help his daughter with her homework. People looked out for Roland because, as he says, they somehow knew he didn’t belong in prison. Though these inmates had jail numbers and prison records, they were still fathers, sons, husbands and men.
Roland was freed in August 2014 after 101/2 months in jail. New evidence came to light shortly after that, and in early 2015 the judge who had convicted Roland less than two years earlier threw out the convictions.
Last December, the court granted Roland’s request to seal the records of his arrest, prosecution and conviction on the grounds that he is innocent. The ruling meant, in essence, that Roland had committed no crime, had never been arrested and had never spent time in jail.
Though his record is clean, Roland can’t forget that he spent nearly a year behind bars. Jail changed him. It strengthened his Christian faith, and he’s less likely to let small things affect him. But he’s more wary now, more likely to keep people at a distance, less likely to disclose much about himself.
It also left him with a lot of questions: Why did this happen? And how do I go on? It was hard to forget how low he had felt during his stay in the D.C. Jail.
“It just felt like everything that I had worked for, everything I thought I controlled . was instantly gone by somebody else’s lie,” Roland said. “It crushed me.”
Dropping the mask
After his release, Roland returned to Asheville. Adrift, he pondered his future. Going back to UNCG wasn’t a certainty. How could he pick up his drawings and resume his studies as if nothing had happened?
As Roland talked to friends and families about his experience behind bars, he realized something: Incarceration lets loose a ripple effect. Though he had been the one in jail, their lives had been disrupted, too.
Roland’s mom had been the one to call UNCG to tell them that her son was leaving school. One of his uncles had to pack up his apartment. His friends told of feeling cut off because their communication with him was so limited.
“Once I heard those stories, I knew there had to be more stories out there,” Roland said. “I wanted to create a platform that allowed other people to share.”
Roland approached several friends with the idea of returning to UNCG, putting on an orange jumpsuit and becoming a walking example of injustice and incarceration. They approved.
“It’s a therapy, if you will. It’s a healing process,” said Woldu, who now works for the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville. “For all artists, their life is reflected in their work. This is his life currently. This is his work.”
He consulted UNCG art professor Sheryl Oring, who said she thought Roland “was meant to do this project.” Another adviser, UNCG professor and honors college dean Omar Ali, set up a meeting with the campus police so officers would know about his performance art project.
“My mom was worried about my safety,” Roland said. “These days in this world, you don’t have to wear an orange suit being an African American male to get attention in the wrong way.”
Roland went online and bought a pair of one-piece cotton-poly jumpsuits, size 3X, for $35 each. The jumpsuits don’t have jail numbers or the letters “DOC” (for Department of Corrections) stenciled on the back - that’s intentional. But they’re bright orange and as close as he could find to the ones he wore in jail.
Roland commutes to UNCG in regular clothes and changes into a jumpsuit once he gets to his art studio in the Gatewood Building. He wears whatever shoes and hats he likes; in jail, hats weren’t allowed, and shoes were ragged hand-me-downs. Everything else - undershorts, socks, undershirt - are jail-issue white.
His jumpsuit has a pocket over his right breast - a luxury, he said, because the jumpsuit he wore in jail had no pockets.
Roland set up rules for his project. He can move and talk freely in his art studio (his cell) and around the art building (his cell block). Outside of the art building, he must walk to his destination and back without delay. Like it was in jail, he can’t stop and talk, but people can talk to him if they walk with him.
He communicates with people through letters because there are no cell phones or social media in jail. This month, he hopes to set up two video conferences a week, similar to the closed-circuit system used by the D.C. Jail.
These rules are an inconvenience to Roland. But they are also disruptive to people trying to contact Roland. That’s the point.
“Since my world has changed, it changes your world and how you move when you try to connect with me,” Roland said. “That’s exactly how my friends and family - or the friends and family of other incarcerated people - have to change their lifestyles.
“… I’m asking you to do a little something different in order to give you the realistic version of how you’d have to change if you met someone in that situation.”
Oring went with Roland on his first cross-campus walk in his orange jumpsuit. They ventured out from Gatewood to the library, where Roland posed for a picture that Oring put on Facebook. They strolled to the student center and then returned to the art building.
All told, Roland walked the campus for about 30 minutes. He was nervous. A lot of people stared.
“Academia is sort of an elite environment,” said Oring, an assistant professor of art and his mentor on the project. “… You just don’t go around campus talking about this. It’s not accepted. It’s a different world.”
This project, Oring added, “is allowing people to discuss something that’s taboo.”
Roland kept at it. In time, people responded. He said UNCG students and employees are sharing with him their own stories of parents and siblings and relatives who have spent time behind bars. Some talk to Roland because they’re curious about the jumpsuit and want to hear his story.
Last month, Roland built a mock-up of a prison visitation booth out of wood and Plexiglas and plopped it down on a table in the student center. Roland sat on one side and waited for people to join him. A couple of people did. Those conversations, Roland recalled, “were beautiful.”
But Roland said it’s tricky to wear an orange jumpsuit around a college campus. He sees the side-eyes, the look-aways and the stares at his back as passersby try to spy a prison number that isn’t there. Some people have even hurried away from him.
His presence, he said, is intended to be a reminder of the injustice and incarceration that happen off campus. He hopes to change people’s perceptions and eliminate the stigma of incarceration.
“I’m not trying to be too intrusive,” Roland said. “I’m trying to cause the smallest interruption out of the normal lives of everyone else who isn’t affected by it.”
He’s not sure when or how the Jumpsuit Project, as he calls it, will end. It’s very much a work in progress. But the artist once content to hide his work until it was done has shed his mask and taken center stage in his ongoing performance.
“The more and more I’ve talked to people about what went on, the more and more liberated I felt. This is me,” Roland said. “I didn’t want to hide it. I spent a lot of time hiding the fact that this stuff was going on.
“In the sense of getting everything exonerated, that’s like hiding it again. My heart’s been broken too much to forget or suppress those kind of emotions.”
Information from: News & Record, https://www.news-record.com
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