Reconnecting with a father she had only ever known from behind bars

Kristal Bush, 28, with her father, Victor, 54, who was released from prison after 25 years.

When I met Kristal Bush last year, she was a young entrepreneur who drove family members to visit loved ones locked up in prisons all over the state.

Her Philadelphia transportation company, aptly named Bridging the Gap, wasn’t just business, though. It was personal.

Bush was 3 when her father went to prison. In his absence, the little girl grew up. She went to college, became a social worker, bought a house, and started a company that was as much about keeping her clients connected to their loved ones as trying to stay in touch with her own incarcerated family members.

In July, Bush sent me a text that hinted at a whole new set of opportunities and challenges. Under a photo of Bush, now 28, and a man walking away from State Correctional Institution — Mahanoy was this message: “My Dad was released from prison after 25 years.”

Victor Bush, 54, who had been incarcerated for multiple crimes, some violent, was free. And now the daughter who had built a business bridging the gap between inmates and their families was faced with bridging the gap between herself and her father.

On the day Bush got out, Kristal recorded his release.

“It’s good to be home,” Victor Bush said in the prison parking lot. “It’s good to be free.”

He was clearly overwhelmed, but as Kristal narrated her father’s first moments as a free man, it was impossible not to notice the flood of emotions washing over her face: the happiness, the excitement, the confusion — the fleeting, yet unmistakable, flash of panic.

“We’ve been reuniting families for five years,” she said as she pulled her car out of the prison parking lot. “I don’t know … I’m nervous. Like this is the test right here.”

Later, we met to talk about how it was going.

“It’s really a shock,” she said. “I was happy that my dad was coming out. At the same time, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is another person that I have to take care of.’  Because he’s starting from scratch.”

To help her father transition, she went back to social work full time, in addition to running her transportation company with her mother, and taking a class to get certified to open a transitional home for former inmates.

It’s a lot, for everyone.

When people get out of prison, the focus is often on those reentering a world that bears little resemblance to the one they left. And there is plenty of that for Victor Bush, from a new cellphone he’s still trying to figure out to the Ubers he refuses to take, because “I can walk there faster.”

But the adjustment is also difficult for the families left behind.

For Kristal Bush, it looks like this: Suddenly, the man she had only ever known behind bars is a daily part of her life. In many ways, they’ve switched roles as she becomes more parent than daughter. She gives her father pep talks, encourages him to set goals. He makes her favorite seafood meal and tells her he just wants to make her happy.

“I knew it was going to be hard,” Victor Bush said. “I can’t just jump back in her life and try to be her father. I got to work my way back to father status.”

He isn’t the only one in the family trying to make amends. A month before her father was released from prison, Kristal Bush’s older brother Jarvae Scott, 34, also got out of prison after serving 11 years for attempted murder.

Bush has been caring for her brother’s son, Nyvea, for much of the young boy’s life. She’s in the process of adopting the 12-year-old, a decision Scott welcomes.

“What she did for my son while I was locked up I can’t never repay,” Scott said. “It meant a lot to me that she brought him to me when I was away so I could get to know him. Now, I have to get to know him out here.”

Reconnecting can be harder than reuniting. Sometimes, as Kristal Bush knows now more than ever, bridging the gap is just the first step to freedom.