Hostages to Justice

Last January, one day before her civil lawsuit went to trial, Toni Bunton sat on the top bunk in her prison cell at Scott Correctional Facility, a place she had lived almost half her life.

The place where she said she was raped, over and over, by prison guards.

She cried and prayed and wrestled with old doubts that swirled through her head.

Should she stand up in court and tell the world what happened to her? Should she risk her freedom at a time when she was seeking to have her 25- to 50-year sentence commuted? Or should she keep her mouth shut, once more, and hope that her silence was the key to getting out?

She felt trapped.

Once a meek teenager who had silently endured assaults by male guards, Bunton had grown into a confident and respected member of the prison population at Scott, on the border of Northville and Plymouth townships. Even so, she was a convict. With no physical evidence to support her, would jurors believe she had been raped? Would they even care? Bunton was among 500 women who claimed in a lawsuit that prison officials had willfully ignored years of sexual abuse by male guards.

Now, at 34, Bunton was among the first 10 prisoners to reach a courtroom.

"Some people are telling her to lay low, keep your head down until you get out," Dick Soble, one of the lawyers in the prisoners' suit, said of Bunton's fears.

Would the lawsuit help her pitch for commutation or kill it? Even on the eve of her court testimony, the old doubts resurfaced.

The following morning, Jan. 15, Deborah LaBelle woke in a panic, worried about what she would say in her opening statement.

For several days, LaBelle had tried to find the right words, forming thoughts and writing ideas on paper, but she couldn't get it right. She feared her statement was flat, lacking the passion she felt for a case that had consumed her for 12 years.

LaBelle handles civil rights cases from her Ann Arbor office, many involving female inmates. It was while meeting with inmates on visitation and education issues that LaBelle began to hear complaints of sexual abuse. Over the years, as the prison case grew and became more complex, she added likeminded attorneys in private practice.

The chance to speak up

As she prepared for trial, LaBelle knew she had to set the right tone from the start, there was so much at stake. She felt pressure to honor these women, who had waited so long to tell their stories.

So she scribbled on a legal pad, writing and rearranging her notes. As she walked down the sidewalk to the Washtenaw County Courthouse, she was still writing.

Dressed in a simple black dress and coat, intended to convey her serious and somber message, LaBelle continued to scribble as lawyers and spectators filed into the courtroom.

The Department of Corrections had fought the case for years, arguing variously that the statute of limitations had expired on the women's claims; that it should not be considered a class-action; that the hundreds of women in the suit should have their trials held separately; that prisoners don't have the same rights as normal citizens. The appeals went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Five days earlier, Allan Soros, an assistant state attorney general representing the prison system, filed a motion seeking 10 separate trials for the women. Judge Timothy Connors denied the motion.

LaBelle finished writing as the court was called into session for opening statements. She faced the jury and cleared her throat.

"OK," she said. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen."

Behind her, against the wall, the 10 women sat in chairs, dressed in civilian clothing -- pink sweaters, blouses, dress pants -- the kind of clothing seen at a PTA meeting. Seven of the women, including Bunton, were still prisoners. They had changed from their prison garb at the courthouse.

"We've all been waiting for this trial for a very long time," LaBelle told jurors.

Her voice was calm. Her mind was racing, trying to find the right balance of emotion. She wanted to scream out loud about how the guards preyed on the pretty ones, the ones who were small and weak, the ones who had been abused as children; how the women had to see the guards every day, yet couldn't report what happened to them, couldn't say no and couldn't fight because guards had all the power.

But the suit wasn't against the guards. They didn't create the system. They didn't have money to pay for damages.

Instead, this lawsuit was filed against the Department of Corrections, former DOC Director Kenneth McGinnis and former Scott Correctional Warden Joan Yukins.

To win, it would not be enough for LaBelle to show the guards had abused the women. LaBelle and her legal team had to convince jurors that prison officials knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

The 1st hurdle: Jury selection

All of the women said they were touched inappropriately -- some, several times a day -- as the guards filled a daily pat-down quota. LaBelle contended that this constant touching emboldened some guards to sexually molest the prisoners.

On the other side of the room, the 10 jury members listened closely. Normally, in a civil trial, six jurors are used and five are needed for a verdict, but Connors said that the trial would last so long that he would lose a few. He kept 10, just in case.

Jury selection took 11 hours.

Several potential jurors said prisoners deserved whatever they got, even though it is a crime for a guard to have sexual contact with a prisoner. Others were dismissed because they said they themselves were sexually abused.

The case against the state

"I want to start with a little history and context," LaBelle told the jury. "Historically, in Michigan ... women used to be supervised in their cells and in their living units and in their showers and in their bathrooms by women. That is the way it was."

But that changed in 1986, when the DOC assigned men to work closer with female inmates.

LaBelle glanced at her notes, but spoke from memory.

She looked into the eyes of the jurors to make sure they were listening, to see whether they were engaged.

"You will hear that these guards -- not all of them, certainly not all of them -- these male guards went further," LaBelle said. "They sexually assaulted these 10 women. After the gropings, after the viewing, after the watching, then they assaulted them. They assaulted them over a period of years.

"Michigan, you will hear, invited men into the women's prison unit areas without training, without restriction and without precautions for these women's safety."

LaBelle told jurors how prison officials had ignored years of warnings.

The Michigan Women's Commission, a governor-appointed group, reported in 1993 an alarming level of sexual abuse and sexual harassment by prison guards. Two years later, the U.S. Department of Justice called it "pervasive." One year after that, Human Rights Watch, the international watchdog group, released a report that said there was a "highly sexualized and excessively hostile" environment.

"Had the wardens and directors looked, they would have seen," LaBelle said. "Had they read, they would have known. Had they listened, they would have heard."

After 47 minutes, she was done.

The state's defense

It was the state's turn.

Soros rose.

Speaking in a dry, steady voice, with little flash or emotion, Soros explained that he represented the prison system and its top officials, not the guards.

Soros, too, offered jurors a history of Scott, and how the facility switched to female prisoners in late spring 1992. At the time of the alleged assaults, there were 860 female inmates and nearly 400 employees.

Admittedly, he said, there are problems in every prison.

"You cannot have a perfectly running correctional facility. There is always going to be some problem that needs to be addressed."

He said the department knew of some allegations of sexual assault and made changes, improving the way it investigates abuses. He added: "You can't solve everything."

He then stressed what would become the backbone of the state's defense: The women had had opportunities to tell the warden and others that they had been assaulted years earlier.

"They didn't report their allegations in a timely manner," he said. "That's crucial."

Over and over, he repeated the point: "You have to know about a problem before we can help resolve it. We didn't get notice. We couldn't do anything about it.

"And we are not at fault."