The Family Man: Phillip Ocampo

Phillip Ocampo with a beard

Phillip Ocampo was born and raised in North Philadelphia, and he’s almost 30 years into a Death By Incarceration sentence at SCI Coal Township. He was a key protagonist in Amistad’s 2023 documentary No Way Home. Read his story below and scroll to the end to listen to Phillip share about his relationship with his mom and grandma.


If you roll up the sleeve on my left arm, you’ll see a portrait of my oldest daughter, Ziany, on my shoulder. This portrait would’ve cost thousands of dollars on the street, but my former cellmate was a legendary tattoo artist, and we look out for one another in here. The prison threw me in the hole for 30 days for getting the tattoo, but it was well worth it. My family is the love of my life.

When I was 8 years old, I went to live with my grandmom in North Philadelphia. She made me speak to her exclusively in Spanish, so even though guys inside tease me for speaking “Gringo Spanish,” I cherish it because it’s the language I share with my grandmom. To this day, she’s the only person who calls me by my given name, Phillip. I always tell people: My mother’s my heart. My grandma’s my heartbeat. 

For the first few years in my grandmom’s house, it was me and my Aunt Kim and Uncle Bobby, who both grew up to become police officers. A couple years later, my cousins, Little Kim and Monesha, moved in with us, completing the household. My little cousins and I shared something in common: both of our parents were addicted to drugs. 

My mom got hooked on drugs when I was 8 years old. But every weekend, she would pick me up from my grandma’s house and take me to the movies or to the arcades—just me and her. After full days of fun and connection, she would drop me back off at my grandmom’s house. She didn’t get high one single time during our outings together. Through all her years of addiction, I never once saw my mom high.   

After I caught my case, I told my mom: “I can’t do this time worrying about you, knowing that any day I might get the call saying you overdosed. I’ve got 2 beautiful daughters who need you. I need you to take care of your grandchildren.” 

She struggled hard against her addiction for the first two years I was locked up, and then she gave her life to God and got it together. That’s when our relationship got real tight because I saw the sacrifices she made for me. I take my incarceration as a blessing and a curse. My incarceration put me in here with a life sentence, but it also motivated my mother to get clean.


When I was 18 years old, I was sentenced to Life Without Parole, which is essentially Death By Incarceration. Two months after my 18th birthday, I was part of a group that robbed a local drug dealer’s house. They came home in the middle of the robbery, and in a chaotic moment, one of the guys in my group shot and killed another guy. I also fired a gun that night that grazed someone with a bullet but thankfully avoided any serious injury. The terrible decision we made to commit the robbery that night landed all of us in prison due to the felony murder rule, which mandates a minimum sentence of Life Without Parole for anyone who commits a felony where someone dies, even if they didn’t personally commit homicide or intend for anyone to die.  

I’m 48 years old now, coming up on 30 years incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons. While I’ve been at Coal Township for the last 18 months, I spent most of my time at SCI Smithfield in Huntingdon. For the first 5 years of my sentence, I was a little hot-headed. But there were older dudes at Smithfield that knew my family. One guy in particular, Moosey, grew up with my uncle and knew my grandmom. He took me under his wing. My best friend’s brother Gabriel was also at Smithfield, and he wasn’t into the nonsense of prison culture. He would always tell me, “Don’t get caught up in the game—go to school, better yourself.” Even some of the old heads that were about the jail culture didn’t want me to get caught up in it. They were like, “Young buck, that’s not for you.” I’m from Philadelphia, but I was raised in Huntingdon County by incarcerated men who supported me in becoming a better person. 

One of the greatest joys I encountered when I came to Smithfield was a puppy training program run by an outside organization called Canine Partners for Life (CPL). From the time the puppies were 8 weeks old until they were 14 months we trained puppies to become service dogs for people with disabilities. 

Before my first puppy arrived, CPL put a kennel inside my cell and gave me a leash, dog treats, a toothbrush, and everything else I would need for our work together. I will never forget the day I walked into my cell and saw her: a tiny black Labrador named Annie. I sat down next to her in my cell in disbelief, absolutely amazed that I had a puppy with me. You can have the worst day, but when you walk into that cell and see how happy that dog is to see you, everything else goes out the window. 

I trained these puppies on everything, from learning their name, brushing their teeth, scheduling vet visits for shots, grooming, and so much more. It was truly like raising a child, and I loved every minute of it. The hardest part was when it was time for them to leave. I shed tears for every last one of them, but it gave me comfort knowing that what we did together would help someone who needed them. 

It was a volunteer program with no pay. I never got the recognition for raising and training the dogs because they would just say it was raised by an inmate. Ultimately, that was fine with me because it gave me so much joy doing something that blessed someone else, even if they never knew who did it. It was my own way of giving back to society and making it a better place for folks who need support. I get recognition from God, and that's all that matters to me. 


I gave my life to God around the year 2000. When you’re in here, you got nothing but time, so I started studying different religions. What drew me to Christianity was that grace is given to us through faith from the start. In other religions, you’ve got to earn redemption, but Christianity says God gives it to us freely out of love for us, not to reward our good performance. Ultimately, I saw how my mom was transformed through her faith. I thought, “I want to give my life to the God who helped my mom turn her life around.” 

Every morning, the first thing I do is get in the word for an hour. I get up, brush my teeth, get my coffee, and open up my Bible. You can pray to God all you want. He never gets tired of hearing from us. He always listens to us with love and compassion. My favorite book of the Bible is 1 Corinthians because that’s the book of love. It says, “Love don’t keep no records of wrongs. Love doesn’t envy, it doesn’t boast, it isn’t proud. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love endures forever.” Love is an action word. Someone shouldn’t have to say they love you—their actions are going to show it.

On the morning of my first church service at Coal Township, I arrived early and sat down on the second pew. After a few minutes, a guy came up to me and said, “Hey, man, that’s where the queers sit.” I was like, “Ok, cool.” And he said, “You’re not queer, are you?” I said, “No, but I don’t see no reason not to sit with them.” The Bible I read says God loves us all equally—he doesn’t discriminate against nobody. I want to live my life the same way. 

At its core, Christianity isn’t a religion so much as a relationship. God meets us where we are and speaks a language we’ll understand. Some of the young guys in here trip when I talk about Jesus because I’ll say things like, “Jesus was one of the first gangsters. He was one of the first ones with a team, like y’all say.” When he rolled up into the Temple and found people exploiting the poor, he flipped over the tables and said, “This is a house of prayer for all people.” Then he immediately started healing folks who were blind, people who couldn’t walk, people who were pushed to the outskirts of their community. That’s the God I serve. 


My oldest daughter Ziana looks just like my mom and grandma. She was one year old when I caught my case, and she went to live with my grandmother. My younger daughter, Delilah, was born two months after I was sent to prison. She lived with her mom, who got hooked on drugs, and eventually she ended up in foster homes. I saw Delilah when she was 2 years old, when Ziana’s mom brought her to see me, and then I didn’t see her again until she came to visit me with my mother when she was 18. For a long time, I blamed myself for the challenges Delilah faced because I wasn’t out there to care for her and protect her. I’m grateful she started coming around my family more and more once she got older, and when she became pregnant with her first child, my family threw her a baby shower. 

Now I’ve got 8 grandbabies, all under the age of 10. Those kids have my whole entire heart. My oldest granddaughter is 10 years old, and she’s already a sneaker head. My granddaughter, Ivory, is 8, and that girl is like Punky Brewster. She’ll wake up and put on purple pants, a yellow shirt, green sneakers, and walk out the door ready for school. My grandson, Justin, is 9 years old, and he loves basketball. My aunt and mom went to his game recently and scheduled a video visit during the game so I could watch him play through Zoom. 

In my free time here at Coal Township, I make gifts for them like handkerchiefs or handmade flowers—anything to let them know I’m thinking about them. My daughters know to always answer my phone calls even if they’re busy. They can just hand the phone to my grandkids, and they’ll pass it around like a football until we’ve caught up on all the things they’re going through. When I come home, the main role I want to focus on is being a granddad. 


My life turned out the way it did because of the choices I made. Some people say you’re a product of your environment—that I turned to the streets because I grew up in the hood and I was poor. To a degree it’s true, but my Aunt Kim and my Uncle Bobby grew up in the same household and their lives didn’t turn out the same way. I take responsibility for the choices I made that put me in here. 

At the same time, I’ve been locked up for 30 years now and I believe I’ve paid penance for my wrongdoing. If my case had happened just 2 months earlier, I would already be home now, because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to sentence a child under the age of 18 to life without parole. It shows how arbitrary these timelines for punishment are. Where do we draw the line to say this person doesn’t deserve a chance to return to society and be with their families, but a person who was a few months younger does? 

My grandmom is 93 years old now. She’s facing serious health issues, but she’s still upbeat and remains in high spirits. I hope I can make it home in time to spend her final days next to her. I want to be there for her in her time of need the way she was there for me. 

In the meantime, I’ll continue to use my time in here to grow in love—for God, for my family, for the guys I’m serving time with, and the young kids who come through in need of a positive role model before they head back to society. I believe we have the power to heal one another through relationships. I know that because I’ve experienced it firsthand—through my relationship with God and with my family. I’ve seen how my family’s love, especially my mom and grandmom, has changed the entire course of people’s lives. I can’t wait to get home and join them in showing that revolutionary love to people in the community I came from. 

If you would like to send Photo a note, you can write to him at: 

Smart Communications/PA DOC
Phillip Ocampo #CS7722
SCI Coal Township
PO Box 33028
St Petersburg, Florida 33733