From: "So I Like to Get Tied Up, So What?!!" by Jim Stewart, pages 33-38. Copyright 1996 by M.J. Stewart-Addison.

Notes on Strait-jackets

First published 1982 by Jim Stewart.

The image of a strait-jacket.

In the real world there is a general consciousness that such things exist although most people have never seen one except briefly in a movie or used by a street performer Escapeologist. Most escape artists consider a strait-jacket to be a sure-fire crowed puller. Since HARRY HOUDINI first introduced the stunt (or at least claimed) it has proved to be popular with a lot of people in a lot of places... I think for a lot of different psychological reasons. It certainly seems to be more than a morbid fascination.

A 'Regulation' or Officially Approved strait-jacket

The very existence of such a barbaric device should, surely, make most people cringe. Suggestion that such a piece of equipment might have been used in real-life situations should make the whole idea repugnant? So why do crowds regularly gather to see and sometimes help get someone strapped into such a threatening and challenging situation? I won't attempt to analyze the reasons - the fact is indisputable: vast numbers of people enjoy seeing such a happening. Just what percentage of the crowd speculates on what it must be like to have it done to them / do it to someone else / have a go at escaping ... who knows? The fact remains that being 'interested' in straight jackets isn't that unusual.

What is a straight jacket?

Traditionally it's a reasonably tough fabric garment designed to prevent violent mentally disturbed patients and prisoners from causing harm to themselves and other people.(before the days of sedatives). Strait-jackets or strait waist-coats can be anything from a simple smock with closed sleeve ends and tie tapes, to deliberately intimidating constructions of sail-cloth, leather straps and metal hardware. The term 'Regulation' usually suggests that it is an approved pattern, as used in a particular institution or by a particular prison authority. In hospitals where a patient may continually remove all his/her clothes the garment was often little more than a night-gown which the wearer could not remove.

In Britain 'The Home Office', authority which has responsibility for most Police and Prison equipment, has at various times in the past approved specifications for pieces of restraining clothing (although all information on the garments is 'strictly classified'). Inevitably , the existence of such equipment has led to it being used as a punishment as well as a last resort. In places where such an item would find very little actual use, to have some form of restrainer hanging around serves as a useful threat, to keep would be troublesome patients in line.

Historical records:

Official records are almost non-existent. Restraint devices and early prison equipment were usually made locally to specifications of people responsible for running the establishment. Hence personal preferences dictated the design and frequency of use of such equipment. There is evidence that many jackets in hospitals and prisons were purposely designed to look threatening; extra bands of leather and canvas to suggest additional strength and durability. In reality such thick and bulky strait-jackets may not have been as efficient as a well constructed garment made from lighter pliable rip-proof canvas. Not only more comfortable, light weight jackets can be infinitely more confining if correctly cut and sewn -- and efficiently applied.

Psychological impact:

Seeing someone restrained by, strapping someone into, or being strapped into ... is what I'm dealing with in these notes. Whether as a challenge or punishment, here is a situation in which energy and aggression can be worked off harmlessly. Although strait-jackets are now seldom used 'officially' in most European medical/detention institutions - it is still recognized in some circles that the hugging tightness of a well applied straight jacket has a calming effect on some patients once they have exhausted all attempts to free themselves. In a less threatening situations, to escape from a strait-jacket can be an exhilarating experience for the escaper and anyone watching. Many spectators when watching an Escape Artist feel the urge to help in strap the would be escaper. What number of them would, secretly, like to have a go at struggling free?

Escaping from....... :

In the short space available only the basics can be indicated. JOHN NOVAK wrote a small book for Escape Artists which covered alternatives. Called STRAIT-JACKET ESCAPES it is still in print. Techniques for escaping from a strait-jacket must necessarily vary with the design and manner in which it is applied. This is the main consideration. HOUDINI never allowed anyone a second chance to strap him into a jacket.

To successfully escape the main aim should be to surreptitiously gain 'slack' while the garment is being strapped on. Every inch counts, particularly in the tightness of the arm straps.

Factors affecting escape:

  1. Whether straps or tape ties are used.
  2. If the canvas is supple enough to use fingers through it.
  3. If it is possible to work the arms upwards or downwards.
  4. If arm-holes are wide enough to work arms out of the sleeve by twisting jacket around the body.

Quick release ......

  1. Slack is gained mainly by expanding chest and faking tightness by bracing elbows against sides as jacket is strapped on. Extra space can also be stolen by gripping a handful of fabric under the arms out of sight.
  2. When ready to escape relax all muscles, hunch shoulders forward to bring all available slack to back, pushing arms deeper into sleeves. This leaves all available slack in-back allowing buckle of arm-strap to be worked systematically upwards until arms can be pulled free overhead - or downwards to bring arms under seat. This, of course, can only be achieved in jackets which have no side loops through which arms have been passed. It will be noticed that virtually no Escape Artist uses a S/J with side loops. On TV if the Hero escapes from a jacket, arms are not through the loops.
  3. To complete an escape once the arms have been un-crossed, fingers through canvas can usually work at straps or ties, or by shifting the jacket around the body, teeth can often reach buckles.
  4. HOUDINI often made his escape out of view, inside a 'cabinet'. Who knows what clips, hooks, razor blade and other useful gimmicks were concealed within what was essentially, a conjuror's magic cabinet.
Escape from any jacket is very much a matter of practice. To improve chances of escape by methods 1/2/3, when jacket is applied the right arm should be crossed over the left (unless you're left-handed), placing right hand on left bicep (that is, if you are allowed to 'get away with it') otherwise under the left elbow. It is best to avoid allowing arms to be 'folded'. When trying to work both arms upwards and over the head, brace the elbow against a wall or a door-handle. Or kneel down on one knee, using the other as a Pushing Post. The same effect can be accomplished by lying face down on the floor and rolling alternately from one elbow to the other, forcing the elbows closer together to increase slack in the mitt straps. The easiest way to escape from a strait-jacket is to be sure that it is only ever strapped on by someone who has never done it before.

To prevent escape:

Having studied and experimented with ways to escape from a straight jacket it becomes more easy to devise ways to make escape more difficult.

Jackets used by escape artists usually have longish wide sleeves, loose neck bands and no strap between the legs (crotch strap) and certainly no side loops.

A jacket with short, tight sleeves, snug under the armpits present a much more exacting challenge. A close high collar also adds to the general 'cling', and straps connecting the sleeves should be short with holes right up to the sleeve ends .... and be very strong. The strain in all directions on a well applied jacket can be intense, seams should be double sewn.

Additional defenses against escape:

A crotch strap to prevent the body of the jacket being dragged over the head. In addition to side loops, arm straps anchored through one of the back straps to stop arm strap buckle moving either up or downwards.

Sleeve-ends around hands being made of a heavy material or leather to prevent tampering with buckles through the sleeves will defeat many would be Escape Artists.

A small strap added around each wrist before the arms are crossed makes slipping the jacket virtually impossible.

Extra reinforcement of the seams, elbows and neck will stop any attempts to wear a way out of an otherwise escape proof jacket -- but the most important of all is to eliminate 'slack'.

Getting he jacket on in a challenge situation:

Even with a willing victim, applying a jacket single-handed needs practice. A particular awareness of the various tricks for gaining slack is essential. One way to eliminate stolen slack is, after threading the arm-strap as far as possible, to then stand to one side and brace your body against that of the victim, use the free hand to clamp the prisoners elbows together. The back-strap can then be wrenched tighter at the same moment elbows are pulled closer together.

Two people applying a jacket:

Slack can be eliminated much more easily with additional vigilance. As one pulls the arm-strap tight behind, the other can press the victims elbows together at the front. It is amazing how much further arms will reach across the chest with a little persuasion. Two people can also manage to 'fold' a victims arms even against quite violent opposition.

Unwilling victim being forced into a strait-jacket:

This is a complicated and potentially dangerous undertaking. As a test of ingenuity and stamina it can be fun. In a one-to-one situation it is virtually impossible unless the pair are very unequally matched. With two against one, if a routine has been worked out in advance, it is possible to subdue a victim even if he or she is prepared to put up a healthy struggle. In any event it's certainly fun to try.

Finally, extra defenses against a would-be Escapee:

Escape from any form of body restrainer is seriously hampered if feet are strapped together. A strong leather strap or Pinion Strap set threaded between elbows at the back defeats most would-be Escape Artists. Lacing the hapless (helpless) bundle to a bed or short ladder. (which must be safely anchored or laid on floor). Imagination, ingenuity and the element of surprise count for much in the field of escapes and the sort of challenges we have been discussing.