Hostages to Justice

On just another day in July, Toni Bunton was walking down the hall at Scott Correctional Facility when she was stopped.

"Oh, there you are," Warden Heidi Washington said to the prisoner. "Come with me."

Bunton was confused and worried. She followed Washington and two deputy wardens, as she was instructed.

"Did something happen?" Bunton thought. "Did I do something wrong?"

They went into a counselor's office, and the door closed.

"Gov. Jennifer Granholm," the warden said, "signed your commutation yesterday."

After surviving more than 16 years behind bars for murder, after testifying in a lawsuit that put a spotlight on the sexual abuse of female inmates in Michigan prisons, after being awarded more than $3 million in damages, Bunton was going home.

She looked at Washington -- who became warden after Bunton's years of abuse -- and was surprised to see emotion.

"Her eyes welled up," Bunton said. "I could see around her mouth, it was trembling. She was trying to hold her emotions back. She's a professional woman."

Bunton had deep respect for Washington, for her work to improve Scott. And she recalls what Washington said next: "Don't tell anyone. People might get jealous or harm you. If anyone does anything to you, you have to let me know immediately."

But it was too late. Bunton was smiling so hard that the secret was out.

"All the girls in the unit, all the inmates, were up against the glass. They were jumping up and down. They knew I had been waiting to find out. They knew it was good news because of the expression on my face."

Washington let her make several phone calls. "I'm coming home," Bunton told her mother.

And her mom started screaming.

"What if they change their mind?" Bunton wondered Sept. 4, the morning of her release. She was afraid something would go wrong. But she gave her toiletries to her roommate and said good-bye to friends.

Hours later, she walked out of Scott -- a place where she was raped and left standing in a bathroom with her underwear at her ankles; where she endured seven more rapes in silence and shame; a place where she had somehow found a voice to speak for herself and other women subjected to daily indignities at the hands of guards.

Bunton left the building that morning wearing black slacks and a white blouse, an outfit she bought from the JCPenney catalog. She carried a small box with her few possessions.

Bunton was greeted by her mother and brother, aunt and uncle and a friend, who hugged and kissed her.

Her family gave her a Louis Vuitton purse with several items, including a new cell phone.

"This is a phone?" Bunton asked, holding up something that seemed impossibly small.

She climbed into her uncle's SUV for her first car ride since she was 17.

There was a caravan from the prison to her uncle's home. Bunton was the last one to get out of the car. She walked tentatively from the vehicle, across the grass, to the spacious home and was overwhelmed by the trees. "There are no trees in prison," she said.

She posed for pictures, a tourist in her new life.

Challenges and prayers

The last few months have been a blur for Bunton.

She was confirmed in the Catholic Church.

She got a driver's license.

She campaigned for President-elect Barack Obama, carrying around paperwork to enlist new voters.

She got a job and went to work every day and paid her taxes and her bills -- she loves paying her bills because it makes her feel normal.

"I want God to use me for a purpose greater than myself," Bunton said. "It's a Dr. Martin Luther King quote, and it's one of my favorite quotes. And it's something I've always prayed for. I'm hoping someone will give me an opportunity to work hard for them."

She was accepted into college, where she will start work on a master's degree.

She learned to send text messages.

She went to Lansing and met with several senators, lobbying for Second Chance legislation that would give the parole board an opportunity to review the files of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison.

She spoke to a group of law students, telling them her story, urging them to fight for their clients, trying to get them to realize the power they held as lawyers.

She voted for the first time in her life.

She searched the Internet, trying to find money to start a program for at-risk teens -- because she still hasn't received a penny from the $3.45-million jury award she won last year as part of a class-action suit against Michigan's prison system. With the case under appeal, there is no guarantee that she ever will.

She sent a thank-you card to Granholm, promising to make her proud, promising to become somebody, promising not to waste this opportunity, and she included pictures and an update on what she has done.

Growing self-confidence

She continues to evolve, week by week. At work, she no longer asks permission to go to the bathroom. She is getting more confident doing things on her own. After shopping and a trip to a salon, she looks more elegant. But she still doesn't feel comfortable, and she certainly doesn't feel safe.

She thinks about the women still in prison, and she prays for them. Bunton will be on parole for 48 months. She must live by a list of rules, including this: She can't have any contact with felons, which means she can't go back to Scott to visit friends.

She thinks about the victims of her crime, and she prays for them. Bunton was the getaway driver in a drug deal that ended with one teen killed, his brother paralyzed.

"I can't directly help them or change it, but I can try to help other people, so they don't find themselves in the same situation that I found myself in," Bunton said. "I want them to have peace. It's not about me and my feelings. It's about them. I pray that God somehow blesses them."

Tormented by memories

Bunton is struggling, still suffering, with the guilt of being involved in the crime, with the pain of the sexual abuse. In prison, so many women had suffered the same way -- whether it was inappropriate pat-downs or the verbal abuse or the sexual harassment or the rapes. They didn't have to explain it. They had lived it together.

On the other side of the barbed wire, Bunton feels alone and cut off.

She is tormented by memories of the guards. She said she is afraid of them, afraid they will track her down, afraid they will continue to hurt her.

"I had a dream that the officer was coming in the house, with a flashlight, coming to get me to take me back to prison," Bunton said. "I must have been crying very loudly because my mom woke up. She said she heard me crying."

At night, she said, she asks God to keep her safe. She asks for peace.

"Let your armor of love protect me, and please take the fear away from me.

"Protect me," she prays, "and let me sleep."