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Hawaii Warden Subjected Female Prisoners to “Shame Therapy”

The head of the Kauai Community Correctional Center (KCCC) came under fire after admitting he had humiliated female prisoners by showing them sexually-oriented films in an attempt to administer “shame therapy.” Warden Neal Wagatsuma denied he had shown porno­graphy to the prisoners, but acknowledged during November 2, 2016 court testimony that he yelled at the women, forced them to watch films with graphic rape scenes – such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar – and filmed them while they discussed their sexual histories.

In defending against a civil lawsuit, Wagatsuma told the federal court, “Shame therapy is talking about things that are deep within a person. It’s just talking about their lives, talking about anything that’s bothering them. I don’t yell at them for no reason. It’s about chastising. It’s a good thing ... you want to confront them when they’re wrong.”

Wagatsuma, who has no background in psychology, said he created the program by drawing on his own life experiences. “Before I came into government, I had a really hard life,” he stated.

The lawsuit was filed by Carolyn C. Ritchie, a former social worker at the prison who alleged she faced retaliation after exposing Wagatsuma’s sexual humiliation of prisoners and gender-based discrimination at KCCC. She also claimed that female prisoners weren’t allowed to participate in work furloughs.

Several prisoners who testified during the trial defended Wagatsuma and said they appreciated the lessons taught during his shame therapy program.

On December 20, 2016, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Warden Wagatsuma. Although the jurors found that Wagatsuma had engaged in intentional or reckless conduct with respect to Ritchie, they held his conduct was not outrageous; further, while Ritchie had reported complaints about the DPS discriminating against female prisoners at KCCC, the jury decided she did not suffer “adverse employment actions.” See: Ritchie v. State of Hawaii, U.S.D.C. (D. Hi.), Case No. 1:14-cv-00046-LEK-KJM.

Previously, Wagatsuma faced a similar federal lawsuit over his controversial shame therapy, which claimed that he had “belittled female detainees in front of other male detainees and required the female detainees to hold up provocative, sexual photographs of themselves as he called them ‘whores.’”

The lead plaintiff in that case, Alexandria Gregg, alleged the warden had called her derogatory names, used profanity and humiliated her; female prisoners were routinely asked what they thought about while they masturbated. If the women refused to participate they were deemed “uncooperative” and sent to “more restrictive and punitive” units or transferred to other facilities.

While the shame therapy program claimed to be “rehabilitative,” former Hawaii Attorney General Margery S. Bronster, who represented both Gregg and Ritchie, observed, “This is not rehabilitation, this is harassment.”

Gregg’s lawsuit was dismissed in August 2014 and currently remains on appeal. See: Gregg v. State of Hawaii, U.S.D.C. (D. Hi.), Case No. 1:14-cv-00056-JMS-KSC.


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Related legal cases

Gregg v. State of Hawaii

Ritchie v. State of Hawaii