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A straitjacket is a garment shaped like a jacket with overlong sleeves and is typically used to restrain a person who may otherwise cause harm to him/herself or others. Once the arms are inserted into the straitjacket's sleeves, they are then crossed across the chest. The ends of the sleeves are then tied to the back of the wearer, ensuring that the arms are kept close to the chest with as little movement as possible.
Although straitjacket is the most common spelling, strait-jacket is also frequently used, and in Scotland strait-waistcoat, which is generally deemed archaic. Straitjackets are also known as camisoles.
The negative connotations of the straitjacket as an instrument of torture come from the earlier Victorian era of medicine. Physical restraint was then extensively used both as treatment for mental illness and as a means of pacifying patients in understaffed asylums.
The term is used metaphorically, as in the phrase "intellectual straitjacket" to criticize very tight boundaries on what ideas are allowed, as imposed by an ideological system of thought.
Before psychiatric medications were developed, doctors simply did not know how to treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders. As a result, doctors attempted a variety of treatments that seem cruel by modern standards. The straitjacket was one of these treatments. At the height of its use, it was considered more humane than traditional restraints made of ropes or chains. It prevented the sufferer from damaging clothes or furniture, and from injuring staff or fellow inmates.
Before the American Civil War, the mentally ill were often placed in poorhouses, workhouses, or prisons when their families could no longer care for them. Patients were often forced to live with criminals and were treated likewise: locked in a cell or even chained to walls. By the 1860s, Americans wanted to provide better assistance to the less fortunate, including the mentally ill. The number of facilities devoted to the care of people with mental disorders increased significantly. These facilities, meant to be places of refuge, were referred to as insane asylums. Between 1825 and 1865, the number of asylums in the United States increased from nine to 62.
The establishment of asylums did not mean that treatment greatly improved. Because doctors did not understand what caused the behavior of their patients, they often listed the possible causes of mental illness as religious excitement, sunstroke, or even reading novels. They believed that the patient had lost all control over their morals and that strict discipline was necessary to help the patient regain self-control. Asylums often employed straitjackets to restrain patients who could not control themselves.
Many assessors, including Marie Ragone and Diane Fenex, considered straitjackets to be a humane form of treatment, far gentler than the chains patients encountered in prisons. The restraint supposedly applied no pressure to the body or limbs and did not cause skin abrasions. Moreover, straitjackets allowed some freedom of movement. Unlike patients anchored to a chair or bed by straps or handcuffs, those in a straitjacket could walk. Some registered nurse specialists even recommended restrained individuals stroll outdoors, thereby reaping the benefits of both control and fresh air.
While considered humane by some, straitjackets were frequently misused. Over time, asylums filled with patients and lacked adequate staff to provide proper care. The attendants generally were not trained to work with the mentally ill and resorted to restraints to maintain order and calm.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, straitjackets were used in some prisons to punish or torture inmates.
The security of a straitjacket depends very much on its size, which should be as small as practicable to be secure. A jacket that is tight at the chest and armpits will make it much more difficult for the wearer to pull the arms out of the sleeves.
The sleeves of the jacket are typically sewn shut at the ends—a significant restraint in itself because it restrains the use of the hands. The arms are then folded across the front, with the ends of the sleeves wrapping around to fasten or tie behind the back. On some jackets, the sleeve-ends are anchored to the garment to allow the fastening or knot to rotate away from the wearer's hands as they move their arms, making it more difficult to undo. Some straitjackets are designed to have the person's arms crossed behind him/her rather than in front to ensure restraint even more.
Most jackets feature a crotch-strap to prevent the jacket from simply being pulled up and off. Some bear loops at the front and/or sides; the sleeves are threaded through these to prevent the arms from being raised over the head. Friction buckles are commonly used to fasten institutional jackets with webbing or cloth straps because they are very difficult to open without a free pair of hands.
To allow the wearer to more quickly escape and re-enter the jacket, gimmicked jackets intended for stage magic tend to omit arm loops, fasten with simpler types of buckles, or leave hidden openings in the sleeves.
Wearing an institutional straitjacket for long periods of time can be quite painful. Blood tends to pool in the elbows, where swelling may then occur. The hands may become numb from lack of proper circulation, and due to bone and muscle stiffness the upper arms and shoulders may experience excruciating pain. Thrashing around while in a straitjacket is a common, but mostly an ineffective method of attempting to move and stretch the arms.
To remove a straitjacket with both back and crotch-straps, it is not necessary to be able to dislocate one's shoulders in order to gain the slack necessary to pull an arm out of the sleeves. The necessity of this ability was fictitiously created by Harry Houdini and his brother Hardeen to try to lessen the amount of competition. Harry Houdini later in his career published his technical handling of the escape in a newspaper. Escape artists around the world commonly continue this rumor to "spice up" the escape. Without dislocating the shoulder, it is sometimes possible to get more room by pulling at the inside of the arms as they are being strapped or by keeping an elbow held outward to gain slack in the sleeves when the arm is relaxed. Another way to gain slack is to take and hold a deep breath while the jacket is being done up.
It is possible for one person to put a willing volunteer into a straitjacket, but it generally takes at least two people to straitjacket a struggling person.
For a jacket without a front strap, the most common way to escape is to hoist the arms over the head before undoing the crotch strap and at least the strap at the back of the neck. This allows the jacket to simply be peeled off upward over the head. The straitjacket escape was popularized by Houdini, who "discovered" it. Houdini first did it behind a curtain, forcing the audience to listen to thumps while watching a billowing curtain for many minutes. He found the trick went over better when the audience could see his struggles. In one of his later and more popular acts, he would perform the straitjacket escape while hung upside down from a crane.
As of August 2012[update], the official "Fastest Escape from a Regulated Posey Straitjacket" is 4.69 seconds, set 9 June 2011 by UK escape artist Sofia Romero. Ms. Romero attempted 5 escapes at the Aylestone Leisure Centre, Leicester, UK; the fifth was the fastest one and was used as the official time by Guinness World Records. Romero's time of 4.69 is over 1.5 seconds better than her previous personal best (and world record) of 6.26 seconds, set during the same set of five attempts.
It is also over 2.5 seconds better than the previous record time prior to Romero's attempts. Las Vegas escape artist Jackson Rayne set the previous record on 17 November 2009, at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Las Vegas, Nevada, with a time of 7.26 seconds, a mark that lasted over 18 months before Romero's quintuplet of escapes set the first sub-five-second mark for fastest Posey straitjacket escapee. Guinness's official placeholder page for the current record is located here.
Straitjacket escape is one of the most sensational and famous magicians' tricks; it was a staple in illusionist Harry Houdini's act. Thus, new world records for straitjacket escape are constantly being attempted, in various ways and with various degrees of difficulty added. Some of the more newsworthy attempts and successes include: