Hostages to Justice

Toni Bunton sat in the witness chair with her arms folded across her chest. She wore black pants and a lavender V-neck sweater over a white turtleneck. Her hair was parted down the middle and fell down her back. After 16 years in prison, she had learned to cut her own hair by looking in a mirror.

It was the third week of January last year, in a courtroom in Ann Arbor. Bunton was the first of 10 prisoners to testify in a civil lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections. They were among more than 500 female prisoners who said they were repeatedly raped and molested by male guards.

Dick Soble, one of the lawyers for the women, asked Bunton about the crime that landed her in prison. She described a drug deal that had turned into a murder. She didn't pull the trigger, but she drove the getaway car, she admitted. She made no excuses.

"I deserved to be punished," Bunton told the jury.

Soble pivoted to the allegations in the suit, and the first time she was assaulted. "It was winter of '93," she said, so softly it was hard to hear.

Judge Timothy Connors asked her to speak up.

"He took me in there and, like, he was kissing me," Bunton said of her rape by a guard in a prison bathroom at Scott Correctional Facility when she was 19. She motioned to her neck and chest, as if trying to scrape away the memory. "He pulled my jogging pants down. My butt was against the sink. And he penetrated me."

She said she did not report the incident to prison officials because she feared retaliation from the guard or others.

"He said he would make my life miserable," she said.

Bunton slumped. The other women wiped away tears.

'I blamed myself'

Bunton testified she was raped eight times in prison. She described each attack in as much detail as she could remember.

By the time she talked about the third rape, her voice was quivering. She was crouched on the witness stand, ducking her head, her arms wrapped tight and her right hand covering most of her face.

"He came in there and started feelin' all over me," she told the jury, before describing the rape itself.

Allan Soros, an assistant attorney general representing the prison system, sat at the defense table, his hands folded, his eyes locked on Bunton.

Bunton took a deep breath. She faced the jury but didn't focus on anyone.

"Do you want to take a minute, Toni?" Soble asked.

"No, I want to hurry up and get this over with," she said, her voice breaking.

Each rape lasted about 5 to 10 minutes, she estimated.

One time an officer "came into the room and he was on his knees at the door asking me if he could give me oral sex." Bunton said she started crying and he left. Another time, an officer climbed on top of her, while she was sleeping in her cell.

Lawyers for the women knew they had to make jurors see their clients as human beings, not as prisoners making claims for money.

As Bunton testified, several people in the courtroom wiped tears from their eyes.

"I was away from my family, 18 years old," she said of entering prison. "I had never been around people like that. I just don't think I was sophisticated enough to deal with the types of people that I had to deal with."

"I felt this was part of prison life. I didn't know any different. Nobody sat me down and told me."

She cried. "I felt it was part of the punishment. I blamed myself."

She stopped and held her head, crying.

Faint hopes

Bunton told the jury that she is worried about the future.

She worries about how she would deal with men, if she ever got out of prison. She said she would have to know a man for several years, before she trusted him, before she felt comfortable with him.

"I want to be normal and I want to have that opportunity and I want to have children, but I don't know what is going to happen."

Testimony concludes

On cross-examination, Soros did not ask Bunton any specific questions about the rapes. He did not raise any doubt that it happened, other than noting that Bunton had not reported the abuse when it happened.

Instead, Soros focused on the achievements and education that Bunton received in prison. She had earned an associate's degree, bachelor's degree and master's degree while behind bars. In many ways, she was a model prisoner. Soros tried to raise a subtle point: If Bunton endured so many sexual assaults in prison, if she truly suffered, how could she be so successful?

After more than 1 1/2 hours, Bunton finished her testimony.

"Toni," her lawyer said. "It's over."

"It's done?"

"It's done."

She picked up a cup of water and walked off the stand.

Deborah LaBelle, the lead lawyer for the prisoners, wiped tears from her eyes.

Reviewing the evidence

After three weeks of such testimony by the 10 women, closing arguments began Jan. 31. The prisoners did not appear in court. They were held in a small cell behind the courtroom.

But the walls were thin.

Bunton stood up, leaned forward and tried to stick her head between the bars, turning her ear to hear bits and pieces.

Soble went over the testimony with jurors.

It wasn't just the wrenching stories of the women themselves.

A female guard testified that she saw guards take women down back stairways, go into their cells at night, flirt or talk vulgarly to them. But she did not report the incidents to her bosses because, she said, she was warned to stay quiet or face retaliation from other guards.

Julie Kennedy Carpenter said that prisoners told her they put wastebaskets by their doors, as an early warning system in the event a guard entered their room at night.

Also damning, Soble noted, were public reports by watchdog and governmental groups in the 1990s which found inappropriate sexual contact between guards and prisoners at Michigan prisons. Soble also pointed out something else: The state did not put on any testimony to dispute the women's suffering, or call any guards to deny the allegations.

Prison officials, he argued, "refused to recognize they had a problem."

The defense sums up

After a short break, Soros gave his closing response.

In a three-week trial, the defense had lasted only 59 minutes, 30 seconds. Soros called only one witness to the stand, former Warden Joan Yukins, who testified that every guard received a handbook each year which outlined inappropriate behavior, including rules about physical contact, harassment and prohibiting sexual relations. She testified that she believed officers had been properly trained in how to deal with female prisoners.

Soros then attacked the credibility of different witnesses and the outside reports citing abuse by male guards. The researchers, he said, didn't directly investigate the women's claims and instead simply repeated their allegations.

The state, he said, had improved the way it investigated abuse and trained guards.

"To say the department just sat back and did nothing, just let everybody run the place, is just totally false," Soros said.

Sexual misconduct, he said, is everywhere in society. It's in homes and offices, schools and churches. But he said the level of abuse at Scott was "unfairly characterized in this trial." Though Soros had presented no evidence to refute the women's testimony, he argued that the sexual abuse was not as rampant as the women and experts suggested.

"A big part of this trial is common sense," Soros told jurors. How could prison officials take action to prevent sexual assaults when so many of these women never reported being assaulted? "How can Warden Yukins take any action to help any of these plaintiffs when they are not telling her what their problem is? Then, they turn around and sue her."

'It's outrageous'

Soble, the women's lawyer, had the last word.

"What you heard in this courtroom today is what women have heard every single day of their lives in prison," he said. "They are liars. They are cheaters. They can't be believed. They are sluts. They are drug addicts. And they are prisoners. ... it's outrageous."

"Even today, in this court, with the overwhelming evidence, what they are telling you is: There is no problem."