BY MEGHAN SEARS, Guest Writer
Toni Bunton, Masters in Liberal Studies student, won the 2011 Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs’ (AGLSP) Award for her creative writing in her Master’s Thesis.
Toni’s winning excerpt from her Master’s Thesis, entitled “A Tree Grows in Prison,” will be published in AGLSP’s Confluence journal in January. The excerpt was written to provide a voice for the women that Toni left during her 16 year stay in prison.
“I enjoy writing about the people I met in prison because I feel it is my responsibility to share their stories,” said Bunton.
Toni grew up in Southwest Detroit and attended Cass Tech High School, but dropped out before graduating. When she was 17 years old she was the driver for a marijuana deal that ended in murder.
“Looking back now there were too few positive role models in the neighborhood,” said Bunton.
In 1991, Toni was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison. She spent the majority of her sentence at the new Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth where she was sexually abused.
“I felt very scared because there were no regulations it seemed for the first 5 years,” said Bunton.
Toni received her Bachelor’s Degree in prison through Spring Arbor University. She continued further education through University of Michigan-Dearborn Professor Lora Lempert’s program to place volunteer professors at several Michigan prisons. Through Lempert’s program, Toni met UM-D Professor Carolyn Kraus, who fine-tuned her creative writing.
“I wrote letters as a way to pass time,” said Bunton.
In 2008, after 16 years, Toni’s sentence was commuted by Governor Jennifer Granholm, and in 2009 she was awarded an undisclosed amount of money from her lawsuit against the Michigan Prison System for the sexual abuse of inmates.
“It’s sort of like being reborn from the dead,” said Bunton recalling her experience leaving the prison and returning to civilization.
Toni’s rebirth included her enrolling at the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Masters in Liberal Studies program, where Carolyn Kraus oversees her writing. Bunton also works with the non-profit Mercy Education Project in Southwest Detroit, which advocates for the rights of women.
“It’s really exciting to be able to work in the community to make change so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to someone else,” said Bunton.