Jury Awards Sexually Abused Inmates $15.4 million

By Gerri L. Elder

Toni Bunton spent almost half of her life in a Michigan prison. She was convicted of participating in a drug deal that led to a murder and sentenced to 25-50 years behind bars.

While in prison, Bunton says that male prison guards repeatedly raped her and other female inmates. She is among 500 female inmates who claimed in a lawsuit that prison officials turned a blind eye to years of sexual abuse.

Bunton was among one of the first ten inmates to go to court in the lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections, former DOC Director Kenneth McGinnis and former Scott Correctional Warden Joan Yukins. Her lawyer, Deborah LaBelle, regularly handles civil rights cases and built up the case against the prison over the years as she heard more and more complaints about sexual abuse from female inmates.

The Department of Corrections fought the case all the way, making various arguments about why it should be dismissed. The Free Press reported that arguments were made that the statute of limitations on the women's claims expired, that the lawsuit should not be considered a class action, that each woman should have a separate trial and that prisoners do not have the same rights as normal citizens.

Appeals in the case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Five days before Bunton went to court, an assistant state attorney general representing the prison system filed a motion requesting that the women have 10 separate trials. Judge Timothy Connors denied the motion and the trial went forward.

Seven of the 10 women, including Bunton, were still incarcerated at the time of the trial. LaBelle explained to the jury that the women were molested and sexually assaulted over a period of years and were powerless to do anything about it. She also told the jurors that prison officials had ignored warnings and statistics for years.

Lawyers for the prison pointed out to jurors that they represented the prison and not the guards. They admitted that there are problems in every prison system, but denied that the prison was to blame because they had not been directly notified of the sexual assaults. They claimed that the women had many opportunities to file complaints, but had failed to do so.

The jury awarded the 10 women $15.4 million in damages. And, after 16 years behind bars, Bunton's prison sentence was commuted and she was released.

The prison has appealed the verdict and asked that the multi-million dollar award be thrown out. The hundreds of women who are waiting for their day in court will continue to wait until the appeals process is complete.

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