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A straitjacket seen from the rear (with some added restraints)

A straitjacket is a garment shaped like a jacket with overlong sleeves. The ends of these can be tied to the back of the wearer, so their arms are kept close to their chest with possibility of only little movement.

Although straitjacket is the most common form, strait-jacket is also frequently used, and, in England, strait-waistcoat (archaic). The spellings straightjacket and straight-jacket are now valid alternatives, although the original term came from strait meaning narrow or confined; thus straitjacket is preferable.

Straitjackets are used to restrain people who may otherwise cause harm to themselves and others. Its effectiveness as a restraint makes it of special interest in escapology. The straitjacket is also a staple prop in stage magic and is sometimes used in bondage games.

The negative connotations straitjackets have as an instrument of torture come from the earlier era of Victorian medicine. Physical restraint was then extensively used both as treatment for mental illness and as a means of pacifying patients in understaffed asylums.

Institutional straitjackets tend to be made of canvas or duck cloth for material strength. Jackets intended as fetish wear or fashion items often use leather or PVC instead.


Before psychoanalysis and psychiatric medications, mental health was largely a mystery. Doctors did not know how to treat the symptoms of disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorder. As a result, doctors attempted a variety of treatments that seem cruel by modern standards. The straitjacket was one of these. At the height of its use, it actually was considered more humane than classical bonds made of ropes or chains.

Before the Civil War, the mentally ill had been placed in poor houses, workhouses, or prisons when their families could no longer care for them. Patients often lived with criminals and were treated likewise, locked in a cell or even chained to the 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. Meant to be a place of refuge, these facilities 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. Doctors did not understand what caused their patients' behavior, and they listed such things as religious excitement, sunstroke, and reading novels as possible causes of mental illness. They believed that patients had lost all control over their morals and strict discipline was necessary to help the patient regain self-control. The asylum provided the restraint a patient could not supply himself. Confining the patient in a straitjacket was one way to do this.

Many doctors 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 cuffs, those in a straitjacket could walk. Some doctors 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 some feared the patients and resorted to restraints to maintain order and calm.

Such was the case at the Osawatomie State Hospital, established by the State of Kansas in 1866. The facility had beds for 12 patients when it opened. By the end of the next year it housed 22 with applications for 50 more. In 1945, the ratio of patients to physicians was 854 to one. As a result of such conditions, restraints were used longer at Osawatomie than in Kansas' other mental health facilities. The documented use of straitjackets continued until at least 1956.

Around 1950, Charles H. Graham, a reporter with the Kansas City Star, wrote a series of articles on the conditions at Kansas' state hospitals. At Osawatomie he found that force was commonly used to restrain male patients, while females wore straitjackets and wrist cuffs. One attendant reported that of the 70 patients on the ward, half might be in straitjackets at any given time. Graham saw no apparent abuse in the women's ward, but described the scene as bedlam.

Graham found it interesting that Osawatomie continued to use restraints while Larned State Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane in western Kansas, had abandoned them by 1948.

Osawatomie was eventually able to phase out the use of restraints through increasing staff and improving facilities. Advances in psychology, including the development of tranquilizing drugs, made the devices unnecessary. Attendants were still leery of removing the restraints, though. According to one, "They were convinced that the patients would kill us. We couldn't get a mental image of any other way than repression."


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 retards 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 not 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.

Most jackets feature a crotch-strap to prevent the jacket from simply being lifted over the head. Roller 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. For this reason, they are rarely used on jackets intended for stage magic.

Escape techniques

To remove a straitjacket with both back and crotch-straps, it is almost always necessary to be able to dislocate one's shoulders in order to gain the slack necessary to pull an arm out of the sleeves. Without this ability, only a very oversized one can be escaped from. Even then, this trick does not work with closed-collar jackets. It is sometimes possible to get more room by pulling at the inside of the arms as they're 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 jacket a struggling person, and yet another to keep an eye out for such tricks.

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 could dislocate both his shoulders. His magician brother, Theodore Hardeen, who also did the escape, could only dislocate one shoulder. 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 skyscraper.


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 ineffective, method of attempting to move and stretch the arms.

Some jackets intended for fetish use include additional restraining features like wrist straps, lockable fastenings or opt to cross the arms behind the back. Again, these should be used cautiously and never for long periods, as they can interfere with circulation or make the jacket difficult to release in the event of emergency.

World Records

Jonathan Edmiston “Danger Nate” set a new Guinness World Records for "Fastest Straitjacket Escape" using a Posey Straitjacket with a time of 20.72 seconds on July 4th 2007 at the Independence Day Celebration on the US Naval Base in Yokosuka, Japan.

On September 27 2003, James Peters (UK) escaped from a Posey straitjacket 193 times in eight hours at the YMCA in Chelmsford.

On January 8th 2005, at the Arndale Centre, Manchester David Straitjacket set the Guinness World Record for the fastest straitjacket escape in a time of 81.24 seconds.

On June 19, 2005, Ben Bradshaw performed a Posey Straitjacket escape using four backstraps, an arm loop, a crotch strap, arm straps and self-tightening clasps, Bradshaw was able to throw it to the ground in a time of 50.08 seconds on the Guinness World Records studio, beating the previous 81.24-second record by David Straitjacket.

Straitjackets in popular culture

See also

de:Zwangsjacke nl:Dwangbuis no:Tvangstrøye simple:Straitjacket fi:Pakkopaita sv:Tvångströja