In the 2016-2017 academic year, Sherrill Roland walked around UNCG sporting what appeared to be a state-issued orange jumpsuit. “I got this for twenty bucks on Amazon,” he told the audience. Roland was wrongly accused of a crime during his first few months of graduate school at UNCG.
As a result, he was imprisoned for ten months, for a crime he did not commit. Roland shared his story, returning to the UNCG community on Wednesday, April 17, on the EUC Auditorium stage.
The Jumpsuit Project was a way for Roland to share his story, along with the story of many others who have been incarcerated, and allow society an insight to an unjust system and the prejudice that people hold towards one’s previous convictions.
Falsely accused or not, statistics from the Bureau of Justice state that one out of every three African American men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. Roland stated, “the going rate to help someone fight for their innocence and overturn a wrongful conviction is an easy $150,000 – $200,000. It’s an expensive thing to fight for and something you should not have to pay for. Your honesty. Your truth.”
This is an unfortunate reality of a society that acts upon preconceived notions of an individual. The intentions, capabilities and what makes these people who they are is never considered beyond the color of their skin, or in this case, an orange jumpsuit.
Without any evidence, only an accusation that he did this, Roland was left needing to find evidence to prove he did not do it. This begs the question, is it really innocent until proven guilty, or guilty until proven innocent? In this case, it appears to be the latter. One of the statements Roland made that really captured the essence of his project was, “When I was on trial I had to read out my character where I had to introduce myself, like a resume reading out my resume as a character reference. Things like I volunteer here, I have this education, etc. and this was to establish character. But even after all that, could someone tell whether I’m a good person or a bad person? Let’s say, just because someone has an Ivy League education, does that necessarily make them a good person or a bad person? This really made me question what are we using as a merit system to do this. A lot of the other men I was in there with don’t have a college education, but it doesn’t mean they are not intelligent. Or it doesn’t mean they are not good people or have good morals and good character.”
It is a very strange idea that without deep understanding and insight into one’s character, people are sentenced to time in a confined space and a life entirely regulated by law enforcement and the justice system. This also contributes to the fact that these people are away from all the significant moments of their lives and the lives of people important to them.
While telling his story, Roland also mentions the importance of his mother throughout his life, especially in supporting him during his trials and incarceration, as well as his daughter, whose birth he missed due to the fact that he was incarcerated because of a false conviction.
When he came back to UNCG before he created the Jumpsuit Project, he did not know whether or not he would even be allowed on campus, because there are regulations in four year universities surrounding accessibility for people who have been incarcerated.
Even in a university setting, one must disclose the information of being incarcerated in the past and then wait for the university to judge whether or not they can be allowed on campus. So based on whether or not someone committed a crime, the sole act of being convicted impacts how people are judged in society, from being able to get a job to being allowed on a university campus. And let it not be forgotten the valuable, irreplaceable and priceless moments that are missed during a person’s time incarcerated.
Sarah Muñoz, a senior studying psychology and Spanish at UNCG stated, “His experience was so much to process, having to go through the system outside of North Carolina where he is from and missing milestones in his daughter’s life. He is making something out of this experience by sharing his story and his growth.”
Roland had two ideas after returning to UNCG on how to deal with what had happened to him. While speaking with a mentor, his first option was to travel the world, get away and remove himself from the situation. Roland stated, “I figured out how much it would cost to travel the world and getaway. I found spaces in Argentina where I could work on wine vineyards and learn a new language. Basically I was looking for an exit plan; it wasn’t realistic.” The other idea that his mentor encouraged fully was to go back to school and see what would happen if he wore an orange jumpsuit around campus.
Whenever he was on campus wearing this uniform, he moved under the same rules as when he was incarcerated; he did not speak to anyone or could not stop walking between blocks or buildings, while always having to wear the uniform: white shirt, white socks and white underwear underneath.
Beyond the UNCG campus, he draws a box of orange tape representing his cell, where people can only speak to him if they enter the space of the box. Roland mentions that the set up of the project is, “built on the same type of insurance in the sense of limitations and inconvenience. You’d be surprised at how difficult it is for some people to step inside the space with me.” Roland describes the variety of responses he received from people who came across him during his project.
One girl had told him that the previous day she saw him walking towards a parking deck on campus and called the cops.
The experiences of people who are incarcerated are overall not discussed openly in today’s society, so for Roland to be able to share his story in order to not only relate with people who have been through incarceration, but also for people outside that experience to understand what it’s like to go through that, is significant.
Even further, it is to understand people who have been incarcerated deeper as people, as human beings and not simply convicts.
Allison Meridin, a long-term employee and alumni at UNCG met Roland through her internship tutoring inmates at the Guilford county detention center. Meridin commented on the amount of growth she has seen from Roland in the two years since he established the project.
After asking her what the biggest impact on the development of the jumpsuit project was, she stated, “I think it takes us back to storytelling. That everyone’s experience is worth listening to. He mentioned the nuances of the story and not just being part of the system. I think this is a lesson we have to take at the university, political and sociological level. We are all human beings and nobody is going to experience the same thing the same way. I hope this traction makes a difference in how we deal with people who are incarcerated regardless of whether they are guilty or not.”
If you would like to know more about the Jumpsuit Project, then you can check out the website at https://www.jumpsuitproject.com/.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment