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‘I Have an Obligation to Talk About It,' Says an Artist Unfairly Imprisoned

Sherrill Roland wasn't allowed to touch his daughter until she was almost a year old. He'd been in jail for ten months for a crime he didn't commit.

He recounts over the phone, "It was the first time I finally got out and got to choose which clothes I actually put on and the first time I got to hold her." "She gave me a huge smile, and I was speechless."

Roland, a 37-year-old African-American artist from Asheville, North Carolina, was acquitted in 2015. For Hindsight Bias, a show at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York that runs through February 5th, he went deep into his experience of unjust imprisonment.

The play is based on Roland's collection of letters, books, and commissary lists (a list of products that convicts are allowed to buy) and exclusively utilizes materials that were accessible to him while incarcerated.

For example, the artist has hung four transparent acrylic sculptures styled like large envelopes from the gallery entrance's ceiling, each engraved with writing that was stamped on letters he sent by the Washington Department of Corrections.

Two 8ft x 8ft acrylic cubes in the main gallery area commemorate a basketball competition Roland helped organize inside his housing unit in connection with March Madness. Five lightbox sculptures in the back gallery display abstracted text from letters Roland sent to his daughter's mother while jailed.

The crime of which Roland was charged is not revealed in the exhibition. He chooses to remain silent on the subject, unwilling to give the bogus allegation fresh life.

He continues, "It ends up bringing in too much of the other side." "I know it sounds strange, but anything I have going forward with my life, with my story, I'm trying to have as much control over it as I can."

"A lot of people who are more famous exonerees than myself, who have spent more time inside than I have, their narratives are frequently led by the false accusation." It's difficult to get in ahead of it when you've been completely innocent the whole time.

So I'm not stating something in that manner in order for me to have control over it. If it makes sense, it's me in my youth.

"However, when I give talks and things like that, I try to walk through as many different scenarios as possible, so I say it's like armed robbery or rape or something like that." We might conceive of it as an avatar for the many preconceptions that come with each accusation."

What is known is that Roland was in his first year of graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro when he got a phone call from a detective in Washington in August 2012, informing him that a warrant for his arrest had been issued. The alleged crime was committed in the capital.

Roland waited for an indictment for over nine months, but it never arrived. "I remember thinking at the time, 'Finally, it's over,'" he remembers. "It wasn't like that. They had the option of reducing the felonies to misdemeanors, but instead chose to put me on a bench trial."

Roland lost the lawsuit since there was no jury in the bench trial, just a judge. From art school to jail, his life was flipped upside down.

He was sentenced to a year and 30 days at Washington's Central Detention Facility. He finally spent 10 months and two weeks, with time deducted for good behavior and earning a job inside.

It's a dehumanizing experience, he says. "Begin with the erasure of one's identity after incarceration. Because my name carries less weight than my prisoner number, it's simple to tell me no or to throw my stuff on the floor, as I'm only permitted a set quantity of them.

"It's simple to tell me to go back to my room or to not speak or do something because my privileges are limited to simply being in the presence of another person." You're going to be isolated as a result of it.

There's no way out of this seven-by-nine cell or anything. As a result, minor things become big things: asking for more toilet paper or toothbrushes that are no longer than your thumb's length."

"Out here in the world, I can wear whatever shoes I want or dress up the outfit," Roland says. One day, we'll be able to dress in blue.

We may go all black or go all out with our outfits. But inside, everyone is dressed in the same way. You are who you are, and there is no denying that. There's no faking it, and there's no dressing it up.

"It was just the pain of why I was even there in the first place for me." It was difficult for me to get lost in that realm since that reality was there in front of me every morning and night. I had a lot of time in my brain, in my cell with the guy I just met, since it was 23 hours lock-ins, one hour out."

He was forced to miss the funerals of both of his grandparents, as well as the birth of his first child, Soraya, whom he would not see in person until his release. Did his family and friends have any doubts about his guilt?

"Everyone who loves and cares for me had my back and trusted in me because they know who I am." However, many of the assumptions were similar to those on television: 'How can you not know?' Were you there at the time? 'Did they think you were someone else?'

We got through the easy ones, but life isn't like television, and I had no solutions. With no answers comes a lot of uncertainty.

"I'm not sure how much uncertainty there is. But the worst part was when she said, 'I knew you questioned it, however.' I'm not sure how much you doubt whether I did it or not, but I see you struggling with it, and that's the part that hurts because I can't do anything except tell you I didn't.

'I can't seem to come up with anything.' It was a weird, insane circumstance, but none of it had anything to do with me."

Roland would finally dispel all suspicions and be found not guilty. Six months after his release, he was granted a new trial. In April of 2015, he was declared the winner. In December of that year, he won an exoneration trial. The agony had finally come to an end.

Since then, he's used performance art to process what occurred, such as The Jumpsuit Project, in which he wears an orange prison jumpsuit and engages people in talks about prejudice and stigma surrounding imprisonment.

"Opportunity" may seem like a terrible term, but he explains, "I was given access to a place where obviously we don't get permission to go." I've had family members and friends who were jailed in the past, and I didn't feel the need to apologize when I returned home, but I did feel like, 'Oh man, I had no clue.'

"I wish I could have spent more time with them, or perhaps I should have written you more letters." I didn't know what it was like until I went on the other side of the wall, and that's basically what the art communicates: attempting to draw people's eyes a little closer to these tiny moments that may not appear significant on the surface, but are significant on the inside."

Roland was inspired to burrow down and develop tangible items by the restrictions of the coronavirus epidemic, resulting in Hindsight Bias. "I continue to use the same materials that I had while incarcerated."

That is the contents of my toolkit. However, gazing at this art in this setting is like seeing into a mirror of some of these experiences. There's some extremely personal material in there, and I'm glad I've finally found a way to communicate it."

Roland intends to spur much-needed conversation about reforming America's flawed criminal justice system from his unique perspective point. "It wasn't necessarily a conversation about innocence with a lot of the people I was incarcerated with."

It's about fairness and justice, therefore even if some of the people I was with admitted to making a mistake, they were being exploited by the system to take more time and be mistreated.

"When I was on probation, I had to take drug tests all the time and do all these things when I got out." Despite the fact that I had never lived in the city, I felt unable to leave.

The bar had been set quite high. I can't fathom how someone without my friends and family and that kind of support would handle basic probation issues. You'd be back in there in no time."

Despite everything, Roland considers himself fortunate to have been exonerated and to have lived. "There are a lot of people who are still incarcerated who will never have this opportunity."

We won't know a lot of these things happen within that place unless someone says something, so I feel obligated to speak out since I was there and now I'm out."

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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