Story by: Nicole Gonzalez
It’s sunny day in Asheville, North Carolina.
Sherrill Roland sits in his mother’s bedroom, watching television when the phone rings.
It’s a Washington, D.C. police detective.
He tells Roland that there is a warrant out for his arrest. He’d better come to Washington to turn himself in.
“As far as I knew, I believed it to be a mistake,” Roland remembers thinking.
This was a week before he was set to start the Masters of Fine Arts program at UNC-Greensboro in the fall of 2012.
Instead, he went to Washington, where he was interrogated by police and told that he was facing four felony charges. (Five years later, Roland wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the charges, but public records show his case was heard by the D.C court system.)
At the time, Roland was allowed to return to North Carolina and begin his graduate program, but his journey was far from over.
The four felonies would later be reduced to misdemeanors.
Roland’s first trial date was set for Oct. 7, 2013.
“On the 8th, I was found guilty,” Roland said. “And sentenced to a year and 30 days.”
He turned to his lawyer and asked if he could speak to his mother before being taken away.
“As soon as I was in this conversation, in that moment, that’s when the U.S. Marshal came up, handcuffed me and took me out of the courtroom,” he said.
Roland received his orange jumpsuit, but little did he know, it would later become part of his identity as an art student at UNC-G, like a second layer of skin.
The New Kid on the Block
“I was afraid of going off to a federal prison,” Roland said now, with a grin. “I’m not prison material.”
He was not allowed face-to-face visits with any of his family members. He only got video calls.
“I would never leave my block,” Roland said. “I would just walk downstairs and hop on the phone they tell me to hop on.”
Roland said every phone conversation, every incoming letter, and every video visitation was monitored. Since the correctional center had lockdowns regularly, sometimes he could only contact his family once every week or two.
“At this point, I had already accepted that this was going to be my life,” Roland said. “I had contemplated suicide way before, in a sense of ‘what are my options?’ after living with someone else’s mistake.”
Roland was released in August 2014 after a year and one month of being incarcerated, and his probation officer allowed him to return to North Carolina.
In the time he was in jail, both of Roland’s grandmothers died and he missed the birth of his daughter, Soraya.
A week after his release, Roland’s probation officer retired and was replaced. Roland’s new officer told him he had to return to D.C.
“My options were find residence or go back to jail,” Roland said.
Cecelia Watley, Roland’s aunt who made the trip to Washington with him various times, said it felt like the system’s way of setting him up for failure.
“He was required to remain in D.C. where he had no job or place to live. How was he supposed to live?” Watley said.
He bounced around, from one friend’s couch to another for about six months, until his new travel permit was accepted and he was finally allowed to go home.
While back home in Asheville, Roland’s attorneys called him and informed him that he was free. The charges had been dropped.
“I was numb,” Roland said. “I don’t know how to feel at this moment.”
Watley said it wasn’t until this day that she felt like he was truly free of the burden he carried every day.
“That’s the day I celebrated,” Watley said. “Totally elated and thankful that God had answered our prayers.”
A New Beginning
After being found not guilty, Roland was now ready to start his new life.
From his first trip to Washington and the day he was taken to jail, Roland was allowed to begin his master’s degree. He traveled back and forth between Greensboro and D.C. numerous times, but he was able to complete the first year of his program.
Right before Roland left Greensboro for his trial date, Roland had begun his second year of his program and was teaching a design foundation class at the university.
Now, back on campus, Roland no longer had to worry about court dates and steel bars, but he was still felt weighed down by the sentence.
“There is a stigma associated with being incarcerated that people just can’t get past,” Watley said. “Until something like this hits your family, I think people feel they are immune.”
“I had to live with the embarrassment for a while,” Roland said.
Roland found himself trying to cover up and lying about the missing three years of his life. People would always ask where he’d been for so long, but he wasn’t sure the truth would be received well.
“Why would I have to lie about the truth, [because] somebody didn’t believe me?”
He had to readjust himself to meeting people, reconciling relationships and interacting with spaces, but he couldn’t just pick up where he left off.
His relationships with friends and family felt strained after being released.
But most of all, his relationship with his art suffered.
He said art didn’t have the same feeling for him anymore.
His perspective of what he wanted, and what was important had changed.
Until he came up with the idea for the Jumpsuit Project, his performance art project to complete his Master’s in Fine Arts.
He proposed some ideas to one of his professors, Sheryl Oring.
“I knew right away it was a brilliant idea,” Oring said. “I said ‘yes, you should do that. You must do that.’”
However, the two were concerned about Roland’s safety.
“I was very aware that this project could be a risky project,” Oring said.
Roland would not only be walking the university’s campus in his jumpsuit, but he would now see the architecture in a different light.
He calls the Gatewood Art building his block, just as he would call the corridor in which he lived in prison and his art studio is his cell.
When moving from one place to another on campus, he cannot stop and have a conversation. If anyone would like to talk to him, they must escort him to his destination, just as the officers did in jail.
“All the restrictions or constraints I have while I’m in the suit on campus mirror the experience I had in D.C. jail.”
His project intends to invite people to open up to him about their own relationships with incarceration, whether through family member or a first-hand experience.
“I’m a constant reminder that these things happen all the time,” Roland said.
He said his orange jumpsuit has become such a large part of his identity that some people he has spoken to do not even recognize him without it.
Roland is involved in various speaking arrangements on his campus, and sets up a booth on campus, resembling that of the booth he was in during video visitations.
He sits behind the glass, next to chanting Greek organization recruiters and other campus clubs, and waits until someone sits on the other side.
“I think he’s opened up a possibility of talking about an issue that is otherwise very taboo on a university campus,” Oring said.
He said some sit and talk. Some come to his side of the glass to ask what he’s doing. And others tiptoe around him and stare.
Oring, now the chairperson for Roland’s MFA thesis committee, says his project has broken down walls for students to speak about an intense, emotional subject.
If someone wants to show support or better understand his project, Roland will only accept hand-written letters, because he did not have access to social media or other means of communication while incarcerated.
“I’m just trying to put those that interact with me in the same position as my friends and family were in during my incarceration,” Roland said.