Hostages to Justice

This five-part series tells the story of female inmates of Michigan prisons as they endured years of sexual assault at the hands of guards. Originally published in January 2009 by the Detroit Free Press, received an honorable mention for the 2010 Dart Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Trauma.

Toni Bunton heard the guard coming down the hallway. He wore cheap cologne, and his breath smelled like cigarettes.

 He scuffed his boots against the floor and opened the door to her cell in Scott Correctional Facility, a women's prison in Plymouth Township.

"Come here," he ordered.

The guard pulled Bunton into a bathroom. She wore jogging pants, a T-shirt and socks.

She was the guard's prized possession, a pretty young thing, as he said, "just the way I like 'em," -- short and cute with brown hair, brown eyes and porcelain skin.

"Shhh!" he demanded.

He yanked down her underwear and pushed her against the sink.

"No!" she screamed in her head. "No, please, no!" But she was scared to death, and the words wouldn't come out. "I'm choking, please, stop, I'm going to die," she thought.

And he raped her.

Bunton said nothing. It would become the theme of her life, a way to survive the next 16 years in prison.

When he was done, he stepped back. "Shhh!" he said, with his finger to his lips. He smiled and left. Bunton stood there, numb, her pants at her ankles.

She was 19.

Bunton said she was raped seven more times by prison guards between 1993 and 1996. She is among more than 500 women who say they were sexually assaulted by guards at several Michigan prisons in the 1990s as officials ignored or dismissed warnings by human rights groups that male guards were preying on female inmates.

A class-action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections has already yielded verdicts reaching an estimated $50 million, when interest and fees are included. And that's only for the first 18 women. With most yet to testify, and lawyers for the state insisting they have no intention of settling, Michigan's beleaguered taxpayers could face hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

"A prison is not supposed to turn you back out to society with more harm than when you came in," said Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor civil rights lawyer who led a team that sued on behalf of the women. "No one, no one in this country, no one in a civilized society is sentenced to be raped and assaulted in prison."

The state's defense: Why didn't they speak up?

It wasn't just the rapes. Many women said they were routinely molested by guards who took advantage of rules that required them to meet a daily quota of pat-down searches for weapons, drugs or other contraband.

Inmates said guards ran their hands over the women's legs, buttocks and breasts under the guise of security. When it became clear the guards wouldn't be punished, some grew so brazen that they fondled women in front of other inmates and guards, or openly masturbated in the prison yard, according to trial testimony.

It is against the law for guards to have sexual contact with prisoners, even if there is consent. Some guards convinced women to submit to ongoing sexual relations in return for "protecting" them from fellow guards.

For years, Bunton kept quiet. She was afraid to speak up. She was a prisoner, after all, a convicted felon, afraid the allegations would not be taken seriously. Afraid of retaliation.

But after years of delay, the case involving the first 10 women, including Bunton, reached a courtroom last winter.

The state had a simple defense: These women are prisoners, and prisoners lie; if something did happen, it was the act of a few rogue guards; and if something did happen, the women didn't report it. So how could the Department of Corrections prevent what it didn't know was happening? The state said it thoroughly investigated any allegations it knew about and the claims of abuse were exaggerated.

"To say the department just sat back and did nothing, just let everybody run the place is just totally false," Allan Soros, an assistant attorney general, said at the first trial.

Nonetheless, a series of human rights reports throughout the 1990s said sexual assaults on female inmates were rampant and corrections officials tolerated the climate.

Since then, the state says it has made changes. They include refined work rules to prevent sexual misconduct or harassment by guards, tougher legal penalties for guards who have sexual contact with inmates and a policy to refer allegations to the Michigan State Police, as well Corrections Department internal affairs, for investigation.

No matter their pasts, listen to their stories

LaBelle said the legal action, at its heart, was about human rights. About women coming out of the shadows and getting a chance to tell their stories.

Bunton and the other women who testified are no saints. The group includes convicted murderers, thieves and drug dealers.

But Bunton, now 35, says it's important to listen to all of them, no matter their past.

"People don't know what goes on inside prison," Bunton said. "I think a lot of people don't care, unless it directly affects them. I want people to know this is going on in your backyard, and you might not care because it might not affect you, but you should care. This is not really about sexual harassment. This is about civil rights, basic fundamental rights of human beings."

June 10, 1991: A favor turns to murder

Bunton knew the guys as Pook and Timbo and Poodle, friends of her cousin, all of them teens in Detroit. They were planning to sell marijuana, and the deal was set, but they needed a ride, according to Bunton. One of the guys said: Let's steal a car.

Bunton said: Oh, no, I'll take you.

At the time, she said, it didn't sound monumental or deadly, a trip that would ruin the lives of nearly all involved.

"I know it's stupid now," Bunton said recently. "I think it is really stupid ... but at 17, uh, I didn't see the harm in it."

Bunton had a clean record, no history of drug involvement. According to records from the case, she dropped off the teens at a gas station on Livernois in southwest Detroit.

"Just drive around the block and come back," she said she was told.

She was in a white Mustang, and was halfway around the block when she heard gunshots.

She began driving faster and ended up going down a dead-end street. Bunton turned the car around and, now, the teens were running toward her -- Pook and Timbo and Poodle -- and they were waving guns. She said later she had no idea they had guns. They jumped into her car, screaming and shouting, saying they had "popped" somebody.

The two buyers had been shot.

Police found Omar Kaji, 19, dead from a single gunshot wound to his head. He was slumped at the wheel of a Monte Carlo. He had a 9-mm automatic pistol.

His twin, Ayman, was shot several times. He was lying by the passenger door.

Later, police would suggest, it was a setup -- by both sides. The buyers didn't have money to make a deal. All they had was a wad of blank paper, wrapped with a $20 bill. The sellers, meanwhile, didn't have any pot.

Ayman Kaji admitted that he and his brother planned to steal the marijuana.

He identified one of the teens with Bunton that night, Jose Burgos, 16, as the shooter.

"He got in the car and just started shooting," Kaji said. Kaji remains paralyzed from the neck down.

A murder conviction, and a harsh sentence

Bunton said she dropped the teens off and went home.

The next day, police took her to police headquarters for questioning.

After signing a statement detailing her role, Bunton thought she was going home. She said she didn't know that, even though she didn't pull the trigger, she could be held just as culpable as the teen who did.

Burgos was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving life in prison. The other two teens never went to trial.

Kaji was wheeled into court at Bunton's sentencing. He spoke in a whisper, and the emotional scene tugged on the heart of Judge Clarice Jobes. Three years later, in a 1994 newspaper interview about her retirement from Detroit Recorder's Court, Jobes singled out the case as an example of the endless violence she saw from the bench and admitted that she was so moved that she later cried.

Bunton was convicted of second-degree murder, armed robbery and assault with intent to murder. She was sentenced to 25 to 50 years, a term that some legal experts now say appeared excessive, given her role.

Kaji does not share that view. He insists Bunton must have known that his brother was going to be shot.

He said he has no sympathy for what Bunton went through in prison.

"I'm a Christian, but I'll never forgive," he said. "There is no way in hell that I'll ever forgive her."

For her part, Bunton has accepted responsibility for the tragedy, even as she insists she was only the getaway driver.

"I feel horrible," she says now. "I deserve to be punished, and you know, I have spent half of my life thinking about the (Kaji) family. ... I am so sorry."

Inmate No. 221034, for the rest of her life

Bunton wore a flowery dress, the same clothing she wore in court, when she was shipped to Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti in December 1991.

At the intake area, she was given five white bras and nine pairs of white cotton underwear. "Your number will be 221034," a guard said. "Remember it because you will have this number till you die."

Another guard told Bunton to read Psalm 23.

"This is the Valley of Death, baby girl," Bunton recalled the guard as saying. "All you have to do is read that verse, and God will carry you through all the way."

Just a few hours after arriving, Bunton met a woman returning to prison.

"Girl, I can't wait for shift change," the woman told her. "My man's gonna flip when he sees me here."

"Your man?"

"Yeah, my man."

She meant her sex partner at Huron Valley. A guard.

Welcome to Scott: The nightmare begins

Bunton stayed for six months before she was transferred to Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth Township in the summer of 1992.

On one of her first nights at Scott, she woke up from a loud voice outside her door.

"Damn, girl, you wanna hurt a brother," a guard said.

Bunton tiptoed to the door. She looked out the window and saw a prisoner performing oral sex on a guard.

This was Bunton's new home, a facility she described as wild, with few rules and almost no physical boundaries between the guards and inmates.

At 4 foot 11, Bunton was small and meek when she entered prison.

One day, she was taking a shower, and one of the male guards pulled back the curtain.

"I'm naked," Bunton said, scrambling to cover her body.

"Oh, hush," the guard said. "I got a wife at home, I know what it all looks like."

Search policy becomes an excuse for sexual contact

At Scott, as in every Michigan prison at the time, every guard was required to pat down five prisoners every shift for weapons, food, drugs, whatever. It didn't matter which prisoners they picked. Some officers did it the proper way, quickly and with professionalism. But others exploited this directive, picking out the pretty women to search, the ones who were young and had long sentences.

Bunton said she was a daily target.

"The officers would come and feel us up whenever they wanted," she said. A guard "would cup the breast. He would rub his hands down your stomach and around your thighs and buttocks, legs.

"All the way up your thighs, to the end."

State prison officials would claim later they had no idea that some guards abused the search policies by sexually assaulting the women. They said they properly trained officers and had written policies against improper behavior. The rules have changed since. Men are not assigned to housing units and are not allowed to pat down women.

But the Michigan Women's Commission reported in 1993 there was an alarming level of sexual abuse and harassment by state prison guards.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Justice found "pervasive" sexual abuse in Michigan women's prisons.

In 1996, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting sexual harassment, sexual abuse and privacy violations by guards and other employees in Michigan prisons.

The report, based on interviews with prisoners and prison rights advocates, cited rapes by guards in a "highly sexualized and excessively hostile" environment.

"Rather than seeking to end such abuse, the Michigan Department of Corrections has consistently refused to acknowledge that there is a problem of sexual misconduct in its women's prisons."

Handed from 1 guard to the next as others watch

The brazen nature of that abuse was laid bare one day, when Bunton was stopped in the recreation yard by a guard.

"How old are you?" he asked.

"Eighteen," she replied.

"Umm, just the way I like 'em, young and fresh.

"Give me a shakedown," he said.

She lifted her arms, standing in a group of prisoners, according to what she wrote in her prison journal. The guard rubbed his hands down her neck, across her back and around to her chest. He caressed her breasts.

He rubbed her stomach. He squeezed her buttocks, rubbing up and down her thighs.

His hand brushed against her pelvic bone, as he pulled himself closer to her.

Another officer watched.

"That's the way you do it," the second officer said.

The first officer started the pat-down again.

"Yeah, let me show y'all how it's done properly," the second officer said.

Bunton said she wanted to scream, but she was too afraid.

The second officer took his turn with Bunton. He rubbed her neck, then her back. He moved around to her breasts and the officers egged each other on. The other prisoners cheered and applauded.

"Aww, you got it down, rookie," the first guard laughed.

"All yard units report to segregation," a voice said over the speakers.

The crowd dispersed. Bunton rushed back to her cell.

Other inmates' stories show pattern of abuse

Bunton's account echoed the abuse testimony of other women at the civil trial last year in front of Judge Timothy Connors.

Jennifer Pruitt, who was serving life in prison for murder, entered Scott at age 17. Days after arriving, a guard forced her to perform oral sex. "You'll get better," the officer said.

Michele Bazzetta, sent to Scott after being convicted of second-degree murder, said an officer frequently took her to an isolated place. "He had a bald head and he wanted me to rub his head at the same time that I had my hand on his penis," she said.

Amy Black, who also entered prison at 17, had sex with a guard two or three times a week over several years.

"He promised he would treat me right and make sure none of the other officers were bothering me," said Black, serving life for murder. "He promised to make sure I was safe."

She ended the relationship when she found out that he was having sex with another prisoner, who she had heard had a sexually transmitted disease.

"For him, I think it was about sex," Black said. "For me, it was about staying alive."

'Make it your garden, where you can grow'

Bunton learned to keep her mouth shut. The guards controlled everything: when she ate, when she slept, when she went to the bathroom, when she spoke.

Each time she was raped, each time she was groped, Bunton buried the pain deep inside.

Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychologist who examined Bunton in prison, later told jurors she had been "systemically, overtly degraded" by the assaults, the "humanity just beaten out of her."

"I call them battle scars because they never go away," Bunton said. "Being a prisoner is the lowest you can be in life. Being a female prisoner is so much worse."

She tried to hide in her cell, reading and thinking and praying. She kept her mouth shut.

"There was someone very close to me, who told me a long time ago, 'Scott Correctional Facility is a very bad place,' " Bunton said. " 'But it is up to you to find the good in the place. So you can look around in that very bad place and you can make it your garden, where you can grow, no matter what is going on around you. It's up to you to remove yourself from the bad and only concentrate on the good.'

"So that's what I did. I made that place my garden. I grew."

Education builds up the courage to tell her story

Bunton, a high school dropout, focused on her education, earning associate's and bachelor's degrees in business administration and a master's degree from a correspondence program.

She earned vocational certificates in food management, computers and graphic arts.

She became a yoga teacher and fitness trainer. "Every time I accomplished something, I felt better about myself," she said.

She grew stronger. She gained confidence and found her voice.

Toni Bunton, inmate No. 221034, was learning to stand up for herself.

After suffering in silence, she took a gamble. She summoned the courage to join a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections. She decided to speak up and tell her story, hoping it would force some changes, hoping that it would end the attacks.

LaBelle, the Ann Arbor attorney who specializes in women's prison issues, had been working for years on sexual abuse issues before coming across Bunton.

Believing the problem was growing and the state was doing nothing to stop it, LaBelle filed a lawsuit in 1996 on behalf of female inmates.

The case would eventually involve more than 500 prisoners, including Bunton.

After years of sexual brutality, Bunton found there were people -- strangers, even -- willing to fight with her: civil rights lawyers and law students at the University of Michigan.

They would push for her voice to be heard in court. They would fight for her freedom.