In ‘A Woman on the Outside’ documentary, Philadelphian Kristal Bush connects families with their loved ones behind bars

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A movie shot of Kristal Bush and her nephew. (Courtesy of A Woman on the Outside)

A movie shot of Kristal Bush and her nephew. (Courtesy of A Woman on the Outside)

Mass incarceration has had a devastating impact on families, with a disproportionate impact on African- Americans — who are five times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans. An African-American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent, according to the Economic Policy institute. Black women endure tremendous emotional and financial burden when a loved one is incarcerated, taking on legal fees and much more.

“A Woman on the Outside” is an award-winning documentary that chronicles the story of Kristal Bush, a Philadelphia woman who grew up with many of the men in her family behind bars. Produced and directed by filmmakers Zara Katz and Lisa Riordan Seville, the documentary premiered at SXSW this spring and has since won “Best Documentary” at the American Black Film Festival.

(Courtesy of A Woman on the Outside)

The film follows Bush over the course of four years, as she balances running a transportation company that takes families to see incarcerated loved ones in prisons throughout Pennsylvania, while raising her nephew and repairing her own family.

“My dad was locked up since I was three years old, and then my brother was coming home after like ten years,” says Bush. “I became so accustomed to the men in my family being behind bars, that when they were home, I didn’t know how to receive it.”

Kristal Bush and her father in 2017. (Courtesy of Kristal Bush)
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As a child, Bush rarely saw her incarcerated father. Raised by her mother, they did not have the means to drive the hours it took to make the visits. But when Bush turned 19, she drove herself. 

Then, the Temple University graduate spent a decade running Bridging the Gap, LLC, a van service — where she drove others up to Pennsylvania prisons, in an effort to keep families connected. The effort eventually took its toll.

I would be in the van just crying, looking at, you know, looking inside the prison like this is what, you know, broke up my family,” she says. “I just hit a point where I just was like, I don’t have the energy to pour into any other family, because I don’t even know what it’s like to be a daughter to a father on the outside.”

Bush says she eventually reached a breaking point where her health suffered from the pressure of taking care of so many people.

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“I feel like the weight of this criminal justice system really lives on the woman,” she says, “we are the ones that are paying the bail, we are the ones that are paying the lawyers- we are the ones left to pick up the pieces.”

Bush says when her father was re-incarcerated for a parole violation, she paid his rent for nine months.  She also adopted her nephew, Nyvae, she says, because his father, her brother, as well as the mother, were both incarcerated. Bush did all this in her 20s, as a recent college graduate.

“It was bad,” she says. “I was a people pleaser, and I wasn’t able to set the right boundaries, because I thought I had to give, because I was the first one to go to college and I was the one to start a business. But once you give your all and you are depleted, there’s no one to help you refill your cup.”

A movie shot of Kristal Bush standing between her mother and brother. (Courtesy of A Woman on the Outside)

That’s when Bush says she dissolved her company and focused on her own mental health, as well as on repairing her family.

“I realized I had missed all of my nephew’s football games, because I was on the road every weekend,” she says, “I thought, ‘what am I doing?’”

Bush says she suffered from anxiety and was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from all the trauma she experienced growing up. When her doctor tried to prescribe medication to help her deal with her mental health, Bush says she resisted. When she disclosed her marijuana use, she soon learned that medical marijuana could be a remedy.

“I was like, why do I feel so bad — I was really depressed,” she says. “My therapist helped me get my medical marijuana card and it helped me get on this road toward healing.”

Stay Lifted is Bush’s new business venture. Her mission is to create community for women in the medical cannabis space where they can find healing and deal with trauma. Part of the work is helping Black and brown people find work in the cannabis industry by first raising awareness.

A lot of people in my community, they were unaware of just how they can enter the cannabis space,” says Bush, “and a lot of those people were criminalized for cannabis and now can not enter the space legally.”

Bush is also part of the Philadelphia Canna Business Association, a coalition of Black-owned businesses working to repair harm to communities caused by the criminalization of marijuana. The group has teamed up with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) to host a series of expungement clinics to help deal with the harm.

We’re going to have someone there registering people to get their medical marijuana card,” says Bush. “Folks will have the opportunity to speak with an attorney and learn about the options and remove your past convictions from their record.”

The free expungement clinics are scheduled to take place Aug. 27 and Sept. 24. 

As for Bush, she says she is still evolving. And while she had been in dark places, things are much better now.

I’m so happy God just sent me still,” she says, “I had to sit still to really figure out, okay, what’s next — and now I am healthy.” 

As a child, Bush rarely saw her incarcerated father. Raised by her mother, they did not have the means to drive the hours it took to make the visits. But when Bush turned 19, she drove herself. 

Then, the Temple University graduate spent a decade running Bridging the Gap, LLC, a van service — where she drove others up to Pennsylvania prisons, in an effort to keep families connected. The effort eventually took its toll.

I would be in the van just crying, looking at, you know, looking inside the prison like this is what, you know, broke up my family,” she says. “I just hit a point where I just was like, I don’t have the energy to pour into any other family, because I don’t even know what it’s like to be a daughter to a father on the outside.”

Bush says she eventually reached a breaking point where her health suffered from the pressure of taking care of so many people.

“I feel like the weight of this criminal justice system really lives on the woman,” she says, “we are the ones that are paying the bail, we are the ones that are paying the lawyers- we are the ones left to pick up the pieces.”

Bush says when her father was re-incarcerated for a parole violation, she paid his rent for nine months.  She also adopted her nephew, Nyvae, she says, because his father, her brother, as well as the mother, were both incarcerated. Bush did all this in her 20s, as a recent college graduate.

“It was bad,” she says. “I was a people pleaser, and I wasn’t able to set the right boundaries, because I thought I had to give, because I was the first one to go to college and I was the one to start a business. But once you give your all and you are depleted, there’s no one to help you refill your cup.”

That’s when Bush says she dissolved her company and focused on her own mental health, as well as on repairing her family.

“I realized I had missed all of my nephew’s football games, because I was on the road every weekend,” she says, “I thought, ‘what am I doing?’”

Bush says she suffered from anxiety and was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from all the trauma she experienced growing up. When her doctor tried to prescribe medication to help her deal with her mental health, Bush says she resisted. When she disclosed her marijuana use, she soon learned that medical marijuana could be a remedy.

“I was like, why do I feel so bad — I was really depressed,” she says. “My therapist helped me get my medical marijuana card and it helped me get on this road toward healing.”

Stay Lifted is Bush’s new business venture. Her mission is to create community for women in the medical cannabis space where they can find healing and deal with trauma. Part of the work is helping Black and brown people find work in the cannabis industry by first raising awareness.

A lot of people in my community, they were unaware of just how they can enter the cannabis space,” says Bush, “and a lot of those people were criminalized for cannabis and now can not enter the space legally.”

Bush is also part of the Philadelphia Canna Business Association, a coalition of Black-owned businesses working to repair harm to communities caused by the criminalization of marijuana. The group has teamed up with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) to host a series of expungement clinics to help deal with the harm.

We’re going to have someone there registering people to get their medical marijuana card,” says Bush. “Folks will have the opportunity to speak with an attorney and learn about the options and remove your past convictions from their record.”

The free expungement clinics are scheduled to take place August 27 and September 24th. 

As for Bush, she says she is still evolving. And while she had been in dark places, things are much better now.

I’m so happy God just sent me still,” she says, “I had to sit still to really figure out, okay, what’s next — and now I am healthy.” 

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