Clad in an orange jumpsuit and bright smile, UNCG graduate student, Sherrill Roland, spoke with this reporter regarding his remarkable story, and The Jumpsuit Project. Roland’s story: that he was wrongfully incarcerated in a Washington D.C. state prison for 10 months and two weeks; his project: to wear an orange prison jumpsuit for the remainder of the 2016-2017 school year.
At its heart, The Jumpsuit Project is about raising awareness for issues related to incarceration. However, as Roland described at length to this reporter The Jumpsuit Project is also a piece of political performance art, and radical act of self-healing.
Of what propelled him to begin The Jumpsuit project, Roland said:
“Well, I really didn’t want to come back to school, and finish my degree. I really didn’t have the appetite to pursue art anymore. And so, [in] making that decision [to come back to UNCG] and coming back and talking to professors — for the initial reason just to fill them in on what happened to me, and why I’ve kind of disappeared for the last couple years — and talking to them, and talking to my friends and family; it was the first time I actually got to hear, their point of view of the impact that my experience had on them. And they were able to speak freely, because, my communication was limited, a lot of them didn’t even know where I was at. So, it was the first time I got to hear their side of the story. And uh, upon hearing all that, I just kind of realized that, the ripple effect of my experience is probably something, that everybody goes through, who deals with incarceration issues. And upon, thinking about that, and trying to put this experience behind me, I just could not stomach that, either. I could not go on with my life, in a sense of repressing it or putting it aside, and picking another avenue, as far as career is concerned. You know, once I started looking into jobs; this absence of life, you know, that I would have on my resume and things of that nature, that big chunk is just something that, had more weight on me than every aspect of my life; eating, and it was just hard to ignore. So, the only way that I could go forward, was to literally put everything out on the table.”
Of his life since beginning the project on September 12, Roland said:
“Well, you know I’m still a student here, I still have obligations to meet, to fulfill my major and course of study; so yes, before I get up and go on campus, I arrive in regular clothes. But then I go to my studio in the Gatewood Art Building, and change. And then, from then, under my requirements for this project, I kind of like, move under certain things. So anytime that we’re in a building, I’m able to talk about, you know, whatever I’m asked, or have conversations, because that’s how it was, so to speak, in D.C. State Prison. I was allowed to talk about things in the block, [and] once I left the block, in transit, from one place to another, I had to get there immediately. So, that’s one of the reasons why I can’t stop and talk. Someone can escort me to another building, but I can’t stop. Um, and so, I attend my classes, and then, I think very hardly about, where I’m going on campus, and why I need to go there. But once I do make a decision to go there, like to the library, or to the EUC for food; it’s there, I go there, get my stuff, and then come back. But I will be, conducting, small groups around campus, in a variety of places. To ask conversations, to start conversations, to ask questions, that are relative to how I think, during this experience; the thoughts that go through my mind, and have going through my mind, are not only specific for me, but are also universal, in a sense. I’ve given my life, they took one year of my life; a question I would pose to a group would be: ‘what is one year of your life worth?’”
Of whether re-adjusting to life after prison took time, Roland said:
“Oh yeah, for sure, cause a lot of times I was in there, I was inside, the only way I could vent, is through letter form. Any phone conversations or video visitation I had was all recorded.” [So you had a lot of paranoia and anxiety?] “Exactly, and then, to be released on to the streets, from where these gentlemen that I was locked up with, had come from, it’s a whole new world. You see the world differently. [You look at the people you were in prison with, and you can understand their situations?] “Oh yeah for sure, because from where I just came from, I came from the lowest tier, and I saw a lot of inmates that I was inside with, during that time that I had to stay in D.C. And, you know, we definitely dress different. You know, I came in as a student, and some guys were homeless, some guys were more, you know, more from the street. And seeing that and meeting some friends, this idea of how we see the world, we go through comfortably; like you know, in a sense of not being aware of possible danger. But from what I was witnessing, things do happen; there’s another world that exists, and you know, sometimes I don’t know if being naive is bliss. Like you find, that you like to live in a comfortable world, of not fearing, which is great, but at the same time, I cannot go back to that world. Because I’m just, too different; there’s no way I can forget the things that I’ve learned and seen and spoke about. And so, I’m very [aware of] people being close to me, around me, behind me, close to my shoulder, [to their] proximity. I’m more self-aware, and, especially now that I’m wearing this orange suit, on campus. And my main priority was safety, and uh, Dr. Omar Ali, him and the International Honors College, have helped me reach out, to people that I had no contact with. So they helped me meet, the major, and the captain of the police department here on campus, and they have been very supportive. And you know, other department heads are starting to get me into classrooms to talk. What I would like — the point of me going out into other disciplines and majors and stuff, is talking to people — to allow the community of this campus, to be okay with me walking around like this, to be okay to talk about this; because these conversations aren’t something that happen.” Roland further emphasized, “Dr. Omar Ali and the International Honors College, as well as Sheryl Oring, and the School of Arts and College of visual and performing arts, have both been huge pillars for me in making this project.”
Regarding whether staying in the same mindset during The Jumpsuit Project as he was in prison is triggering, Roland said:
“Oh yeah. But definitely, I don’t-I’m not applying as strict a regimen, but enough, that, people who interact with me on campus, can get a small taste [of my experience in prison]. Because the luxury that we have on campus, is time and the ability to just have conversations any times that we want to. This freedom, I hope to kind of, disrupt a bit, so when people want to talk to me, [I say]: ‘I’m sorry I can’t stop, I gotta go.’ Or if I’m doing a talk, I’m only there for 30 minutes. People who want to support me, they can’t reach out to my cellphone, they have to write me a hand-written letter, or typed letter; because that’s the thing my family and friends had to go through. So I’m just trying to initiate a certain type of empathy for people who are affected by incarceration [and] the things that they go through.”
Regarding whether or not the way The Jumpsuit Project is being politicized bothered him, Roland said:
“Um, not at all, because I think the questions that they’re bringing to me, is a reflection of the concerns that are of the community, of society. I am in those same shoes that they are. They’re concerned about what’s happening in this world today, I’m just using myself as an example; to bring it closer to you; if it hasn’t been brought to your doorstep, yet. And I hope, to not be the only one to kind of, share my story. The point of me doing this was also to kind of get, people who do support me, to share stories, if they have them, about incarceration and how it has affected their lives. And I hope that, when you put all of our voices together, I can kind of blend in with everybody else, and not stand out. I’ve just had people come up to me and share their stories, [and] I hope to just be an example. Because I was once a student here, living in this world, not knowing, that it could happen, as close or as directly. Sometimes, that light is not always shed. I’m an example that things can happen to you, and it happened to me. It’s very real.”
Of closing sentiments, Roland emphasized that he wanted to inspire people, in much the same way that Columbia college student, Emma Sulkowicz, inspired him, and The Jumpsuit Project.
“I hope that I help, cause that’s the only reason why I really want to do this. Because even though I have a story to tell, my friends and family have stories to tell, too. It’s a ripple effect, and uh, the inmates, are statistically categorized. Like, you can find how many people are arrested or incarcerated, right? But you can’t really put a number on how many people, one individual, who is incarcerated, is affected, due the incarceration. I’m just another statistic in there… just another number, and we’re all grouped in there [prison] no matter what… I encourage people to share their stories; that is my main intent. It’s hard to find an avenue to express yourself, openly, and to feel not judged…The thing that helps the most, is when people share to me, and I don’t feel alone, and people support, and I’m accepted. And so in a sense, that helps me, that lets me know that this is important. This is important because, people themselves have stories to tell, and they don’t want to feel alone.”