Childhood trips to prison drove young entrepreneur to start her own business

Kristal Bush spends countless hours and miles visiting friends and relatives in prison.

At age 6 or 7, Kristal Bush sat in the backseat of the old Cadillac and passed the time reading highway signs aloud. Her grandfather drove.

She was going to see her father in prison, 300 miles away. He was there for attempted murder and had been behind bars since she was 3.

Now 27, Bush has lost track of the hours spent and miles covered over the years visiting friends and relatives in prison. Her father at SCI Greene, her brother at Huntingdon State Prison, her cousin at SCI Dallas. . . .

In fact, it was her cousin Earl Hassan who wrote me from prison to tell me about her.

"She was 10 when I came to jail," he wrote in a letter about Bush's accomplishments despite the absence of so many men in her life.

Bush has visited any number of male relatives in one prison or another her whole life.

It was normal, she said. Until she went to Temple University and realized that not everyone's relatives were in jail, not everyone spent long weekends visiting loved ones behind bars.

And then she did what many college students do: She distanced herself from her background to pursue her own dreams, her own identity. She got her degree. She became a social worker. She bought a house.

But sometimes there's no distancing yourself from your destiny, and in 2012, she started Bridging the Gap Transportation. It's one of at least 20 companies in the state that shuttles people to area prisons.

"I feel like I was born into it," she said, smiling. We were talking outside a coffee shop, and her phone wouldn't stop buzzing with calls from customers looking to book rides.

Several times a week, Bush's vans pick up riders who pay between $25 and $70 and take them to 17 prisons across the state. On most of those trips, Bush also visits someone.

Many customers don't have cars, but even those who do like driving with someone who has taken the long, emotionally draining trips to stay connected to their own loved ones.

Simone Guy has been using Bush's service to visit her fiancee at Huntingdon for about two years. Besides the convenience of Bush's door-to-door service, Guy says Bush's helpful tips about everything from what to wear to how much change to bring for the vending machines are priceless.

"It's mostly women and children taking these trips, and Kristal just really relates to us all," she said.

It is estimated that there are 30,000 children in Philadelphia with a parent behind bars, but the Pennsylvania Prison Society said that number is likely much higher.

Inside Bush's vans are some of the children behind those numbers, including her 11-year-old nephew, Nyvea. Bush is his legal guardian.

As her grandfather once did for her, Bush now takes Nyvea to see his father, who's been in prison for most of the young man's life. It's important for them to have a relationship, Bush said. But it's also important for him to know that this isn't how it should be, even if sometimes he looks across the visiting room and sees a kid who goes to his school, another who is on his football team, visiting their own fathers.

"I can relate to almost every person in my vans, the kids, the sisters, the cousins. But I don't want to imagine being a mother visiting her child. It would break my heart," Bush said.

This wasn't the plan. When Bush was in college, there were times that she wanted nothing more than to leave behind the well-worn roads to prisons that held so many of her relatives.

But she acknowledged that, even as a social worker, she didn't always get the satisfaction she does now. She holds cookouts and back-to-school drives for the families. She holds nervous first-time visitors' hands. And more than once, she's hugged a child who cracks a little when the visit is over and they have to leave their father behind. She knows that feeling well.

"A lot of people don't know what they're getting into until they get into that van," she said.

In a way, Bush is still a social worker. She's just taken her work on the road.

ubinas@phillynews.com

215-854-5943 @NotesFromHel