“The Jumpsuit Project”: Guest Artist Sherrill Roland Spreads Awareness on Mass Incarceration

Last Tuesday during lunch periods, Sherrill Roland stood in the lobby of Paresky Commons, reciting a monologue about the injustices of the American prison system.

This past Tuesday, a large group gathered in Paresky Commons during lunch, crowding around artist Sherrill Roland, who was dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit. He stood within a small rectangular frame of red tape as he conversed with students and teachers.

“At first, I didn’t really notice the orange square. I just saw the orange jumpsuit because it’s such a vibrant color from afar. I just saw a mob…I was just in awe the whole time, hearing about his experiences and his stories and answering questions. His raw honesty was very empowering. It was beautiful for me,” said attendee Angie Collado ’21.

Roland visited campus as part of the Addison Gallery of American Art’s latest exhibition, “Harlem: In Situ.” Roland was wrongfully incarcerated in 2013 and spent ten months in jail before being released. After a lengthy exoneration process, Roland chose to wear an orange jumpsuit for a year while going to classes at his university, calling his work “The Jumpsuit Project.” Since then, Roland has performed with his jumpsuit all over the country, from law schools to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“I had a lot of questions when my body entered the university campus, questioning, did my body belong there? … What does an orange jumpsuit look like being on campus? My mentor, she was like, ‘That’s it! Why don’t you investigate that?’…[Wearing a jumpsuit] isn’t illegal. That suit isn’t real. I did not come home with an orange jumpsuit, but when my body is in it, it becomes very dangerous. It attracts a lot of attention,” said Roland.

According to Roland, his installation symbolizes life in prison in many ways. The red taped rectangle that he sits in is the same size of his cell. Although Roland does not remember the exact measurements of his holding block, he compared it to walking around a familiar bedroom at night.

“I never thought about doing [‘The Jumpsuit Project’] while I was incarcerated, but coming back out, and figuring out [the space of my cell], I didn’t measure it out. I just felt for proximity, just what this space felt like. I could reach out my arms and knew that I could touch this wall and lean a little bit and I could reach across the bed and touch the other one,” said Roland.

In addition to his appearance in [Paresky] lobby during the lunch periods, Roland gave a talk later in the day at Kemper Auditorium. Roland was then joined on stage by Stephanie Sparling Williams, Visiting Scholar in Art History and Assistant Curator of the Addison and the curator of “Harlem: In Situ” for a conversation discussing Roland’s work. Many students expressed new realizations about the prison system after listening to Roland’s speech.

“[Roland] got out of prison, and then he had to go through this whole other really long process to actually get [his punishment] cleared from his name… After being in prison for so long for something you didn’t do, you still have to go through this long battle,” said audience member Piper Drew ’20.

Roland’s talk addresses how incarceration is portrayed in the media. He spoke about how shows such as “Orange is the New Black” can promote falsehoods about the prison system. According to audience member Jessica Scott ’20, these stereotypes have become institutionalized in society today.

“Mass incarceration and how it’s perceived has as much, if not more, to do with the people viewing it as the people that it actually happens to. Earlier in [Paresky], [Roland] was telling me that, when observers see him in his jumpsuit, there’s nothing dangerous about his body or who he is… but as observers, we see that jumpsuit, and we see that he’s a black man, and we immediately just imagine danger,” said Scott.

According to Sparling Williams, the student response at Paresky was highly positive. The crowd had to be broken up at times for people to walk through from one side of the hall to the other. Roland himself had to be convinced to take a ten minute break after three hours of continuous conversation.

“I really just wanted students to have an opportunity to speak with [Roland] because he’s mesmerizing…[Andover] students are going out into the world and do some amazing things…I hope that one day, or even now, that you will think about him. You will think about those who are behind bars, who don’t have representation, who aren’t visible,” said Sparling Williams.

Roland’s taped cell, his orange jumpsuit, and pictures of his previous performances are on display at the Addison through July 31. Roland hopes that his work will expand to provide a voice for those who are in a similar situation to his. He also expressed hope that his project would lead to action, and not just conversation.

“There has to be a point of compassion that will make you go back to your lifestyle and reconsider some of it in order to put forth the effort to change. We can show up for these things, but we’ll go back and just get back into the same habits… I think we all have a different level of compassion that needs to be met, but that’s what I’m curious about with this work, as in, am I getting close? Am I becoming a little effective to somebody?” said Roland.