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 that the arms are kept close to the 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 erroneous, when in fact, "strait" means "tight" or "narrow".
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.
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 disorders. 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 was considered more humane than classical bonds made of ropes or chains.
Before the American Civil War, the mentally ill had been placed in poorhouses, 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 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 some feared the patients and resorted to restraints to maintain order and calm.
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. Some straitjackets are even designed to have the persons 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 sport 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 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.
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 The Great Hardin 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'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.
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.
On June 19, 2005, Ben Bradshaw from Australia performed a Posey Straitjacket escape using four backstraps, an arm loop, a crotch strap, arm straps and self-tightening clasps. He managed to escape in a time of 50.08 seconds on Guinness World Records studio in Sydney, beating the previous 81.24-second record by David Straitjacket.
On August 5, 2006, Michal Angelo set a new record by escaping from a regulation straitjacket while being fully submerged under water in a time of 29.1 seconds, beating the previous 38.59 second record by Ben Bradshaw.