Sherrill Roland could not touch his daughter until she was nearly a year old. He had spent 10 months in prison for a crime he did not commit.
“It was the first time I finally got out again and got to choose which clothes I actually put on and the first time I got to hold her,” he recalls by phone. “She gave me a big smile and I was just in awe.”
Roland, 37, a Black artist from Asheville, North Carolina, was exonerated in 2015. He has dug deep into his experience of wrongful incarceration for Hindsight Bias, an exhibition running at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York until 5 February.
The show only uses materials that were available to Roland while in prison and draws on his archive of letters, books and commissary lists (of items that inmates are permitted to purchase) for inspiration.
From the ceiling at the gallery entrance, for example, the artist has hung four sculptures made of clear acrylic, shaped like big envelopes and etched with language that was stamped on mail he sent by the department of corrections in Washington.
In the main gallery space, two 8ft by 8ft acrylic cubes recall a basketball tournament that Roland helped organise within his housing unit in conjunction with March Madness. In the rear gallery, five lightbox sculptures bear abstracted text from letters that Roland wrote to the mother of his daughter while incarcerated.
But what the exhibition does not reveal is the crime of which Roland was accused. He prefers to maintain silence on the topic, refusing to breathe new life into the false charge.
“It ends up bringing in too much of the other side,” he explains. “I know it may sound weird but anything that I have moving forward with my life, with my narrative, I’m trying to have as much control over that as possible.
“A lot of folks who are more famous exonerees than myself, who have done more time inside than I’ve been alive, oftentimes their narratives are led with the false accusation. That’s kind of hard to get in front of when you were innocent the entire time. So for me to have control over it, I’m just not saying that in that way. It’s me in my innocence, if that makes sense.
“But when I do talks and stuff like that, I try to walk down many different ways it could be or it could have gone on, so I say it’s like armed robbery or rape or something like that. We can use it as an avatar of thinking of the many prejudices that come associated with any charge.”
What is known is that, in August 2012, Roland was in his first year of grad school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro when he received notification on his phone from a detective in Washington that a warrant was out for his arrest. The alleged offence had taken place in the capital.
Roland spent about nine anxious months awaiting an indictment but it never came. “I thought at that moment: finally, it’s over,” he recalls. “It wasn’t. They had opportunity to lower the felonies to misdemeanours and then they took me to a bench trial.”
The bench trial has no jury, only a judge, and Roland lost the case. His life was turned upside down: from art school to prison. He was sentenced to a year and 30 days at the Central Detention Facility in Washington. With time knocked off for good behaviour and for obtaining a job inside, he eventually served 10 months and two weeks.
He describes it as a dehumanising experience. “Start with the stripping of one’s identity once incarcerated. My name has less weight than my inmate number and so it’s easy to tell me no or to drop my belongings on the floor because I’m only allowed to have a certain amount of belongings anyways.
“It’s easy to tell me to go back to a room or to not speak or do something because my privileges consist of just being around another person. The gravity of that is you’re going to isolation. No getting out of this seven-by-nine cell or anything like that. So these small things become large things: to humble yourself to ask for additional toilet paper or toothbrushes that stretch no longer than your thumb.”
Roland continues: “Out here in the world, I can wear whatever shoes I want or dress up the outfit. We can dress blue one day. We can dress in all black or we can be full of colour. But in there, everybody is wearing the exact same thing. You are who you are and there’s no hiding who you are. There’s no dressing it up, there’s no faking it.
“For me personally, it was just the pain of why I was even there in the first place. Me being lost in that space was tough because that reality was very in your face every morning, every night. It was 23 hours lock-ins, one hour out, so I had a lot of time in my head, in my cell with the person I just met.”
He was forced to miss both his grandmothers’ funerals as well as the birth of his first child, Soraya, whom he would not meet in person until his release. Did his family and friends doubt his innocence?
“Everybody that loves and cares for me definitely had my back and trusted in me and knowing who I am. But a lot of the assumptions were like TV: ‘How do you not know? Were you there? Did they mistake you for somebody else?’ We went through the easy ones but everything isn’t like TV and I had absolutely no answers. With those no answers came breeding doubt.
“How much doubt I don’t know. But the most hurtful thing was, ‘I knew that you questioned it, though. I don’t know how much you question if I did it or not, but I do see you wrestling with questioning, and that’s the hurtful part because I can’t do anything else but tell you I didn’t do it. I can’t produce anything.’ It was a crazy, crazy situation but the situation had absolutely nothing to do with me.”
Roland would eventually quash all doubts and be proved innocent. He secured a retrial six months after his release. He won it in April 2015. He then won an exoneration trial that December. The ordeal was at last over.
Since then, he has tried to process what happened through performance art such as The Jumpsuit Project, in which he wears an orange prison jumpsuit and engages people in conversations about prejudice and stigma around incarceration.
He says: “Opportunity sounds like a bad word, but I was granted access to a place where obviously we don’t get permission to go. I’ve had family members and friends who were incarcerated before and then when I came home I didn’t need to apologise but in a way I felt like, ‘Oh man, I had absolutely no idea.’
“I wish I could have visited them more or maybe I should have wrote you a letter more. I didn’t know what it was like until I got on that other side of the wall and mostly that’s what’s communicated through the work: trying to bring people’s eyes a little closer to these small moments that might not seem like a lot, but they are heavy on that inside.”
The limits of the coronavirus pandemic encouraged Roland to hunker down and make physical objects, leading to Hindsight Bias. “I still only use the same materials I had access to while I was incarcerated. That’s my toolbox. But with this work in this space, it’s like looking in a mirror of some of these experiences. There’s some work that is very personal in it and I’m happy to finally get to a place where I can express it.”
From his unique vantage point, Roland hopes to stimulate much-needed debate about reform of America’s broken criminal justice system. “A lot of the individuals I was incarcerated with, it wasn’t necessarily a conversation about innocence. It’s about fairness and justice and so, even though some individuals I was in there with may admit to making a mistake, they were being leveraged to taking more time and being abused by the system.
“With my time on probation, I constantly had to drug test and do all these things when I got out. I wasn’t able to leave the city limits, even though I never have lived there. The bar was set so high. I can’t even imagine somebody who didn’t have my friends and family and that type of support, how you could manage simple probation things. You’d be right back in there.”
Despite everything, Roland says he now feels very lucky to be an exoneree and have survived. “There’s a lot of people who still are incarcerated who do not get this chance. A lot of these things we won’t know go on inside that space until someone says it, so I do have a responsibility to speak about it because I was there and now I’m out.”