Zully R. Phoenix, AZ

Working to End Mass Incarceration


I am a new organizer to the Center for Community Change, but I have been in the movement for social justice for seven years. It was only in this past year that I found the words to share what happened to me 20 years ago.

When I was a teenager, my father was arrested and taken from us. I can still remember seeing my father in that orange jumpsuit and white slip-on sneakers. The sound of his chains rattling as they took him away is a sound that still echoes in my head 20 years later.

For years to come, confusion and helplessness would flood my thoughts. How was it possible that my family was now part of the criminal justice system? Was that really my dad in leg shackles and handcuffs?

I was a freshman at Northwestern University in Chicago, yet many mornings I would sit in a courtroom to visit my father instead of a classroom. I would try to make sense of something that made no sense at all.

Two years later, I walked across the stage in a cap and gown. Fifteen family members arrived early to ensure a seat upfront to share this very special moment with me.

My father was not there.

Due to his incarceration, he would also miss my wedding and the birth of his first grandchild.

As the child of an incarcerated parent, I had to learn acceptance and perseverance quickly. I had to adapt to a situation that wasn’t mine but was now part of me. I had to move forward with my life and make peace with the guilt that accompanied each new chapter. As our family navigated surviving life in the free world, my father would navigate a life of survival inside the walls that included 3 hots (hot meals) and a cot, phone calls and occasional cards and letters.

Now I work with community organizations who mobilize the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their families. Last month, I looked into eyes of the 20-year-old me at UC Berkeley. I met a group of UC Berekley students called the “Underground Scholars.” They are students that are formerly incarcerated or have an incarcerated parent. They struggle with some of the same things that I did when I attended Northwestern University. They ask themselves the same questions that I did when I was their age. My father is in prison—do I really belong here in school? Should I walk across that stage on graduation day knowing that my dad is locked up in a cell?

We held each other as we cried together. We know firsthand that there are too many families decimated by the incarceration system. Families mobilize as an act of love and survival.

Their strength through difficulty is what inspired me to tell my story and energizes me in the effort to end mass incarceration.