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.

Attorney: Nobody Looked or Listened

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."


A Prisoner Tells Her Terrible Story

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."


The Jury Delivers Surprising Verdict

The courtroom door swung open. The trial was over. A jury of four men and six women had reached a verdict in the lawsuit by 10 female inmates who claimed Michigan prison officials did nothing to prevent rapes and assaults by male guards.

"All rise!" the bailiff said loudly.

On the other side of the courtroom, behind a row of lawyers, inmate Toni Bunton clutched her chest.

Her stomach churned. Would the jury believe her testimony that she was raped eight times and groped on a daily basis by the men who guarded her at Scott Correctional Facility? Would anyone care?

"Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?" Ann Arbor Judge Timothy Connors asked, folding his hands.

The jury foreman stood to deliver the news.

1 verdict at a time

The 10 women stood behind their lawyers, holding hands.

The first prisoner was awarded $335,000.

"This is a very good award, for this case," Dick Soble, one of the lawyers for the women, thought to himself.

The foreman moved down the list of plaintiffs, reading off the verdicts, all decided in favor of the women, awarding damages that ranged from hundreds of thousands of dollars to several million.

The women cried and hugged and passed around a box of tissues, wiping tears from their eyes.

Finally, it was Bunton's turn.

Bunton, who had served more than 16 years of a 25- to 50-year sentence for her role in a drug deal that ended in murder, stood, rocking side to side.

"Was plaintiff subject to unwelcome sexual conduct or communication?" the jury foreman read from the form.

"Yes," the foreman replied.

"Do you independently find, based on the evidence in this case, that the defendants had notice of a sexually hostile prison environment?" the foreman asked.


This was key. It meant that the three defendants -- the Department of Corrections, former DOC Director Kenneth McGinnis and former warden Joan Yukins -- knew there was a problem at Scott and failed to do something to stop the abuse.

Then, the foreman announced the damages. Bunton was awarded $3.45 million.

Bunton kept rocking, now in disbelief.

She couldn't hear what the foreman said next. Her heart was pounding so hard, and everybody was crying so loudly, all she could hear was her own heartbeat, thumping in her ears. She watched one of her lawyers write down the number and stared at all the zeroes.

'Thank you for believing in us'

In total, the women were awarded $15.4 million. With attorney fees and interest, because the case was delayed for so many years, the total climbs to $40 million, according to Deborah LaBelle, the lead lawyer for the women.

But there was more. Something unusual and unexpected.

A woman on the jury asked to read a statement.

"We the members of the jury," she began, "as representatives of the citizens of Michigan, would like to express our extreme regret and apologies for what you have been through."

The 28-word statement marked the first time anyone had apologized to the women.

"Thank you," Connors said. In 17 years as a trial judge, Connors had never heard of a jury making such a statement to a plaintiff.

"I understand the plaintiffs would like to make a statement to you," Connors told the jury.

Bunton stepped forward.

"Thank you," she said softly. "You know, for so many years, we felt like no one cared, and our lawyers cared and they believed in us, but we felt they were just a few. Even now, today, when I go back to the prison, I don't have somebody to check on me."

Pointing at the jury, Bunton said, "I know you guys care."

"It's so hard for us. We are scared. Even now, I'm scared. But I feel strong today, because of you. I thank you for believing in us."

"All rise," the bailiff said.

The next group of female inmates went to trial last October, resulting in yet another multimillion-dollar verdict. With more than 500 women in the class action, these cases could go on for years, with many of the same witnesses, the same experts, the same lawyers. If other juries issue similar verdicts, damages could add up to hundreds of millions in state taxpayer dollars.

Bunton, on paper anyway, was now a millionaire.

But she was still a convict, inmate No. 221034. And no jury award would change that.

When the court session ended, seven of the 10 women were returned to Scott Correctional Facility just as they had left.

In belly chains.

More fears

After the verdict, everything changed. In some respects, prison life became more difficult for the women in the suit. Bunton felt like she was living under a spotlight, as if everybody was watching -- other prisoners and the guards.

Some inmates asked Bunton for money. They didn't realize she had not received a penny because the verdict is under appeal.

"Right now," Burton told them, "all I have is an apology."

She was afraid of being given a misconduct ticket by a guard.

She didn't want to screw up her next goal: to get her 25- to 50-year prison term commuted.

Facing the parole board

Five days after the verdict, Bunton learned that she was granted a commutation hearing, set for March. If she could convince the state parole board she deserved to get out early, the board would recommend her release to Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Bunton's case was presented by Bridget McCormack, an associate dean at the University of Michigan law school.

"I wanted the parole board to get a picture of how unique Toni is," McCormack said. "I wanted them to know the person she became, despite the circumstances."

Bunton's lawsuit never came up before the parole board.

Instead, an assistant attorney general grilled Bunton about the shooting that landed her in prison, going through the crime moment by moment.

At every step, the parole board was trying to find inconsistencies. They were testing her truthfulness. Whether she was a danger to the public. Whether she was taking responsibility for her role as getaway driver in a drug shooting that left one teen dead, another paralyzed. Or just making excuses.

"I was found guilty by a jury," Bunton told the board. "I accept that, and I accept the aiding and abetting theory and all of those other things. And I am not trying to minimize my role, either. This is a horrible crime."

Bunton told the parole board she plans to work with young girls and show them there is another way, so "they don't make the same mistakes I made."

Bunton said she has come to terms with the fact that she is a convicted murderer, and she hopes to be forgiven by the family of the victims.

She said she thinks about the victims every day of her life.

No witness spoke in opposition to Bunton's release. Ayman Kaji, who was shot during the crime and remains paralyzed from the neck down, had told state prison officials he wanted to be alerted if Bunton ever came up for parole, but he hadn't updated his contact information after moving, according to prison officials.

Supporters eager to speak

During the hearing, Bunton said that if she got out of prison, she planned to go to college to study criminal justice or journalism or go to law school. She received three degrees in prison, but she thought the professors might have taken it easy on inmates, and the degrees didn't mean as much outside.

"If you release me, I will do good and I will deal with whatever I deal with out there," she said. "I know it's hard."

McCormack asked several people to speak on Bunton's behalf, including friends, relatives, professors, even author and spiritualist Marianne Williamson.

Carolyn Kraus, a professor at U-M Dearborn who taught Bunton a course on memoir writing, told the parole board that there are so many people rooting for Bunton, there would be a competition to hire her.

"From the first day in the memoir class, she was sitting in the front row, and every time I asked a question, her hand went up," Kraus said.

"She writes about her life without self-pity," Kraus continued. "She writes about others with insight and empathy."

Signs of sympathy

At any given time, there are about 50,000 prisoners in Michigan prisons. Commutations are rare.

During Bunton's time in prison from 1991 until the commutation hearing last March, only 52 prisoner sentences had been commuted.

Charles Schettler Jr., representing the state Attorney General's Office, told Bunton he was surprised at the severity of her sentence. "Quite frankly, I have seen people who have committed second-degree murder who have had a much more active part in the second-degree murder than you get a shorter sentence. I can't deny it; this is a very long sentence."

Barbara Sampson, chairwoman of the Michigan Parole Board, said Bunton's excellent prison record indicated she has learned to make good choices.

The more Sampson talked, the more it sounded as if Bunton had a chance to get out. "Don't forget the hard nights," she said. "Don't forget the tough days. Don't forget not liking the food. Don't forget having to ask permission to go to the bathroom. Don't take anything for granted."

Freedom in the balance

After the hearing, Bunton's lawyers heard rumors that the board voted overwhelmingly to recommend clemency. But months passed, with no word.

Her lawyers started to fear bad news.

"Time went on, I felt more pessimistic," McCormack said. "It's a hard thing for the governor to do."

Toni Bunton's mother tried to keep her daughter's spirits up by visiting her at prison.

She spoke to her daughter every day by phone.

In July, the lawyers started hearing more rumors. Granholm was about to make a decision about Bunton's bid for commutation.

Bunton was on edge, wanting to know.

One way or the other.

After 16 Years, Suddenly Free

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."