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Cause of Action for Shaming Sex Therapy May Not Accrue Until after Release from Prison

On August 29, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held “it may be reasonable for an incarcerated individual who is told she must resurface past sexual trauma to overcome them to rely on these assurances, and to view associated feelings of emotional distress as normal, contractive responses incidental to the healing process.” In its ruling, the appellate court found it was error to deny a request to amend a complaint to allege the plaintiff was not aware she had been “injured by the therapy program until sometime after she stopped participating in the sessions.”

Before the Ninth Circuit was the appeal of Alexandria Gregg, who claimed she developed a psychological disorder years after she underwent sexual shame therapy sessions at Hawaii’s Kauai Community Correctional Center (KCCC) between March and November 2011. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.40]. The complaint alleged Gregg participated in the Life Time Stand (LTS) program, which was run by KCCC Warden Neal Wagatsuma. The program purported to provide “therapy, counseling, and mental health treatment.”

According to Gregg’s complaint, LTS sessions involved “public sexual shaming.” Prisoners were forced to stand at a lectern and speak about their sexual histories before large groups of men and women prisoners and staff. During one such session, Gregg was asked “whether she had sex while on drugs,” “how many partners [she] previously had sex relations with” and “whether she had been raped.” Warden Wagatsuma then “ordered her to elaborate on previous incidents of rape” in which she was the victim. Prisoners were required to hold up sexual pictures of themselves as Wagatsuma called them “whores.” The sessions were videotaped and shown to the wider prison population.

On one occasion, Wagatsuma showed a scene from the film “Irreversible” that depicts a woman being sodomized at knifepoint. That scene was described by film critic Roger Ebert as “so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable.” During testimony, the warden admitted he had shown the rape scene.

Gregg said she felt “humiliated, embarrassed, and violated” after participating in LTS. She requested to be moved to another prison in November 2011, and was released in May 2012.

In dismissing her federal civil rights complaint, the district court found the applicable two-year statute of limitations began when Gregg’s participation in the LTS program ended, and not “until later” when she “was formally diagnosed and/or that she learned the full extent of [her] injury.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that a cause of action accrues even if “the full extent of the injury is not known” until the plaintiff subsequently discovers critical facts. The Court held that Gregg should be allowed to amend her complaint to allege she was unaware of her psychological injuries until well after her May 2012 release. The district court’s order was vacated, and the case remains pending on remand. See: Gregg v. Department of Public Safety, 870 F.3d 883 (9th Cir. 2017). 


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Related legal case

Gregg v. Department of Public Safety