John Brush was serving his second stint in prison when his 8-year-old son visited.
The two hugged — only brief contact was allowed — and sat on opposite sides of a square table in the prison’s cafeteria-style visiting room along with Brush’s then-wife, Heather Saxton.
Other inmates sat at similar tables, having conversations with visitors seated across from them.
To the side were soda and candy machines, along with toys for children to play with. Guards stood watch.
Brush talked with his son, Kayson, and the two caught up. Kayson told Brush how much he missed and loved him.
Then he told Brush that he wanted to go to prison, just like his father.
“I was in shock when he first told me. It made me feel guilty about everything I did in the past,” said Brush, 35. “And that was pretty much the end of it. That’s when I said ‘no more.’”
Brush, with multiple felonies checkering a long criminal record, decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree. An Ammon resident, he started taking classes at University Place after he was released from prison in 2008.
He wanted to provide better lives for himself and his children.
“When I was in prison there were a lot of fathers and sons in there that had done 10, 20 years (together). And I didn’t want to be that person,” Brush said. “I put myself in school to show my son there’s another way.”
Growing up, Brush didn’t care about school; his highest GPA in high school was a 1.3. Outside of the classroom, he fell into bad habits.
In 1999, the then 18-year-old was charged with statutory rape after police busted a party that he was at with his 17-year-old girlfriend. The relationship was consensual; he didn’t have to register as a sex offender, but he was put on probation.
And he was drinking heavily and using drugs. In 2003, Brush broke probation with possession of methamphetamine. Sentenced to 10 years, he spent two in the Idaho State Correctional Center in Kuna.
Not a chip off the old block
John’s father, Gary Brush, was a celebrated Idaho State Police officer at the time working in Pocatello.
“The day I got arrested for possession, he was getting an award for his job,” Brush said.
Gary’s role as a police officer created friction between him and his son.
“Every parent wants the best for their kids, and when things happen, it hurts them as much as it hurts the person. Some people make good decisions and some bad, and even the good people make bad decisions sometimes,” Gary said.
After beginning his first sentence, John learned that his father played a part in getting him arrested.
“I was mad at him for a long time. Then about six months into my sentence we started talking, and got closer and closer,” John said.
In prison, John married Saxton. Divorced now, the two share custody of four children. John was also served paternity papers in prison for two children with other women.
After being released from prison in 2005, he started drinking again. He was sentenced to two years in the Idaho State Correctional Institution for breaking parole.
“It was depressing. I knew I was going back before it happened; I’d drive down the road thinking ‘You screwed up,’” John said. “I was actually glad to be back. It gave me enough time to focus on what I wanted to do. And when my son visited, it kind of changed everything.”
A welcoming environment
After being released again in 2008, John had to avoid many of the people who were associated with his old life. At times he was almost scared to leave his house.
“Growing up it was always about trying to prove myself to other people, so I made a lot of bad choices. And after I got out those people weren’t really around; they didn’t support me. So I was done, I got tired of screwing myself,” John said.
He moved in with his mother, Cindy Hronek-Brush, in Idaho Falls. An Idaho State University employee, she encouraged John to register for classes at University Place.
University Place, because of its proximity to John’s other children, was the only option available for him to earn a bachelor’s degree.
After hitting a dead end at ISU, he transferred to the University of Idaho in 2013. UI’s Idaho Falls staff accepted John and provided an environment he could succeed in.
“The support I had between instructors and advisers, there was no comparison. They were phenomenal,” Brush said. “They’re like my other family now.”
John earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology this spring after nine part-time years in college.
Debbie Caudle, undergraduate academic advisor for UI’s Idaho Falls campus, worked closely with John while he took classes.
“He’s an excellent student, and I couldn’t ask for a better advisee — he’s always positive,” Caudle said. “But when John became our student I think he just got the love that he didn’t get from others. He’s a changed person; we’ve seen him evolve with confidence. And I think that’s what has helped him the most — we believed in him and I think he needed that.”
Apart from taking classes and raising his children, John worked at the ISU information desk. His first day there, he found out his wife was pregnant with twins. She had to have emergency labor less than five months later and the children had to live in a hospital — one of them for more than a year.
Even though he worked and regularly flew to hospitals in Utah and Boise where his daughter lived for the beginning of her life, Brush managed to stay on top of his schedule and maintain a 3.5 GPA. He aced difficult classes — chemistry and physics — but there still were struggles. Brush is trying to move on from his past, but it takes time. He said he’s cut out almost all drinking.
“He’s learned to see the consequences of his actions and change his way of thinking,” Gary said. “He’s accomplished stuff that I never could’ve done with a family, going to school and working. I’m amazed. I’m a proud father.”
Gary was another vital support for John after he was released from prison the second time. The two used to go on daily morning walks in Pocatello. After John separated from his wife, Gary was the first to call and offer John a place to stay for the weekend.
Nowadays Gary visits John in Ammon, and the two eat at Papa Tom’s Pizza, or bring John’s kids to the park.
“I don’t think I’ve been more appreciative of somebody in my life,” John said. “It felt crappy to do that to him, to go into the stuff he was trying to prevent, but he’s always been supportive, good or bad. He makes me more of who I want to be.”
Overcoming his past
Despite his degree, John’s criminal record is a barrier to employment.
“But just having a felony doesn’t mean you’re destined to flip burgers. We have people who work in high-paying fields and do very well,” said Dan Ziegler, adult felony probation supervisor for the Idaho Department of Correction.
“If it’s someone who’s done their time, paid for their sins, a lot of employers are looking to give people second chances. And if you’ve had success after a conviction, that means a lot. A lot of people who’ve been through the system can’t say that.”
Caudle and UI-IF Associate Dean Lee Ostrom have been searching for a pro bono lawyer to strike some of the charges from John’s record. They’ve also written letters of support and helped him through career fairs.
After finishing school, John had to quit his job at ISU. Since then, he’s turned in resumes and had interviews for safety supervisor jobs in manufacturing/industrial sectors, though he hasn’t heard back yet.
This is the longest period in John’s adult life he’s gone without a job, even counting his time incarcerated.
“I’ll feel better once I have a job. But every time I fill out a resume and put that I have a bachelor’s degree on there, that feels pretty phenomenal,” Brush said. “I don’t regret my experiences, and I don’t regret prison. I don’t know if I’d still be here today if not for prison.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.