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The Canadian Prison Strap

by C. Farrell
With additional research by "Diogenes"

Part 1: The Official View



Canadian prisons used the strap in a rather more formal and 'British' manner than US prisons. Until around 1970 it was an official punishment for breaches of prison discipline in Canada, but prisons were also responsible for administering judicial c.p. ordered by courts as part of a sentence.

According to the Report of the Canadian Committee on Corrections (the "Ouimet Committee") of March 1969, between 1957 and 1967 the strap was used on 332 occasions in penitentiaries as a disciplinary measure, giving an average of 30 strappings per year:

1957: 15
1958: 16
1959: 24
1960: 12
1961: 67
1962: 18
1963: 96
1964: 26
1965: 7
1966: 32
1967: 19

These figures apply only to the federal-level institutions. In provincial jails, it was stated that Manitoba was by 1967 the only province still using the strap.

Its use by the courts was less frequent than for reasons of prison discipline: in 1954 it was ordered 14 times.

The relevant legislation for judicial c.p., re-enacted in 1970 as section 668 of the Criminal Code, is summarised as follows in Crime and its Treatment in Canada, ed. W.T. McGrath (Macmillan of Canada, 1965):

Flogging frame with cat -- CLICK TO ENLARGE -- Image will open in a new window
Click to enlarge: Flogging frame with cat

Where whipping is an authorized punishment, the court may sentence a convicted offender to be whipped on one, two, or three occasions. The court is required to specify the number of strokes to be administered on each occasion, but there is no limit to the number of strokes that it may specify. A sentence of whipping must be carried out under the supervision of a medical officer. The cat-o'-nine-tails is to be used, unless some other instrument is specified in the sentence. The instrument most frequently used nowadays is a strap.

The strap is smooth leather, three-sixteenths of an inch thick, fifteen inches long and three inches wide, attached to a leather handle that is twelve inches long. The strap is perforated by eight holes, each one-quarter of an inch in diameter, spaced two and one-half inches apart.

The officer in charge of the prison determines when a sentence of whipping is to be executed, but the Code requires that, whenever practicable, this shall be not less than ten days before the expiration of any term of imprisonment. The law prohibits the whipping of females.

The Penitentiary Regulations require that sentences of whipping be carried out in as humane a manner as possible in the presence of as small a group of officers as is reasonable in the circumstances.

It is a sign of the times -- and of modern correctional thinking -- that the list of offences for which whipping may be imposed is steadily diminishing. Generally speaking, it is now reserved for those offences that involve violence or the threat of violence: rape and attempted rape, indecent assault, armed burglary and robbery, choking or strangling or suffocating another person, administering or attempting to administer a stupefying or overpowering drug or other substance. However, it is also authorized as a punishment for incest and sexual intercourse with a female under fourteen years of age, offences in which violence is not necessarily an element.

This legislation was repealed in 1972.

For further details we turn to the Canadian parliament's Committee on Capital and Corporal Punishment and Lotteries of 1953-55.

An early witness was the Director of Public Prosecutions for Ontario, W.B. Common QC. He listed the 11 offences for which whipping could be awarded at that time, each with its maximum sentence of some years imprisonment plus whipping. He stressed that all these sentences combinations were discretionary, but that courts would opt for shorter prison terms where c.p. was included.

Mr Common felt there could be greater use of judicial c.p. for offenders in the 16-18 age bracket, and emphasised the deterrent value of the humiliation involved in being strapped on the bare buttocks. In reply to the committee's questions, he described the dimensions of the strap and the method of its infliction.

 Read extracts from the evidence of W.B. Common QC

The next witness was R.M. Allan, Warden of Kingston Penitentiary, with 41 years' experience as a prison officer.

He, too, felt that the strap was an effective deterrent for youths aged 16 to 24, and most particularly for the "restless type of boy" between 18 and 21. He claimed that, far from being embittered by the experience, inmates sometimes asked to have more strokes in exchange for a shorter prison term, and he quoted one aged 24 who thought he would have stayed out of prison had he received the punishment earlier in his criminal career.

For internal prison discipline offences, too, Mr Allan was adamant that wardens must retain the power to order the strap.

The Warden went on to explain, with the aid of photographs (sadly not reproduced in the report), how the strappings were carried out. He described the equipment used in detail.

Interestingly, he disapproved of spreading the punishment out in instalments over an inmate's period in prison, as ordered by some courts. He thought it better to administer the whole of the strokes as soon as possible after the man's arrival.

Warden Allan also revealed that the cat was never used at Kingston, always the strap. He thought the strap a more effective instrument, and would be in favour of a change in the legislation to do away with the cat altogether.

 Read extracts from the evidence of R.M. Allan

Another witness with direct personal experience to pass on to the committee was Colonel G. Headly Basher, Deputy Minister for Reform Institutions in Ontario. He made no bones about his view that CP, which he preferred to call "spanking", was essential in prisons. He also claimed that whereas the federal penitentiaries used a strap with holes in it, there were no perforations in the Ontario provincial strap. This conflicts with the evidence of Roger Caron, who received it himself -- though he can hardly have been in a position to inspect it closely -- and said that it contained "hundreds of tiny holes". Caron may here simply be regurgitating prison folklore, possibly based on confusion between the federal and the provincial strap.

Colonel Basher added that in his institution the offender is tied to a frame rather than a table, in the standing and not a bending position. He admitted to having "had several young men spanked" while in charge of Guelph reformatory (actually a prison for young adult men) over six years, but stressed that the strap was not given to those under 16.

(Guelph had been the scene of a major riot in 1952 after which 50 ringleaders had been strapped. Prison staff told the press they thought the riot was partly a result of the strap not being used enough.)

Colonel Basher also brought along with him some figures showing that of 106 inmates "given a spanking over a period", only seven required "a second application for further misconduct".

Finally, he listed the offences against prison discipline for which the strap may be ordered.

 Read extracts from the evidence of Colonel G. Headly Basher

This view of CP's efficacy was not shared by Hugh Christie, Warden of Oakalla Prison Farm in British Columbia. His evidence implies that, in that Province, court sentences of strapping were not always coupled with a term of imprisonment:

"Corporal punishment has been necessary when alternative methods have not been available. There will be no excuse for it when facilities are provided, which should be in the very near future.

"Not too long ago I had five youngsters in from [courts in] Vancouver Island to be paddled -- one very normal youngster and four very disturbed delinquents -- ages between 16 and 25. The normal lad said 'By golly, I had this coming to me. Let's get it over with', and he signed a waiver of right to appeal and was paddled. Five paddles. I don't think it did any harm and after the paddling was over we shook hands and he said 'By golly this is not for me' and it will be interesting to see if he comes back. Most people we paddle do. The other four lads were very bitter and said 'We are not going to accept this'. They appealed the case and none of them was paddled and they went back to the community ....."

Professor C.W. Topping, of the Sociology Department at United College, Winnipeg, told the committee that the school of sociology to which he belonged had no objection in principle to corporal punishment, adding:

"My surveys in 1934 and 1925 found a surprising number of persons associated with the delinquency services in favour of the use of the strap in certain conditions. Superintendent C.F. Neelands cited many cases of boys full of animal spirits who, having caused trouble in the shops, were strapped and returned to work. If he had placed these boys in the cells he would have made heroes out of them; as it was, their inability to seat themselves merely drew smiles from the other inmates .....

Colonel Pepper and I laid down the following restrictions for the use of the strap at British Columbia Boys' Industrial School, in our departmental report to the provincial secretary:

1) Public administration should never be permitted (it was routine at the school).

2) Authorisation must be by the superintendent.

3) Must be inflicted with regulation instrument.

4) Number of strokes should never exceed 10 without specific authorisation by the Attorney-General.

5) It should never be administered by the attendant against whom an action has been taken by an inmate.

6) A second attendant should always be present to see that the number of strokes is not exceeded and to prevent an inmate making a false statement concerning what happened."

Dr M.S. MacLean, a former jail surgeon from Welland County, Ontario, stated in evidence to the committee that he had seen a few strappings in his time. He said that bruising was always caused; with a 5-stroke paddling, "the party administering the punishment would be able to lay them over the buttocks so as not to overlap, and so the physical damage would not be too severe". But during strappings of more than five strokes the buttocks would normally start bleeding.

He added that in county jails (as distinct from federal penitentiaries) ten-stroke paddlings were administered all at once rather than in two lots of five. However, there was no possibility of permanent injury.

The consultant psychiatrist at Burwash Industrial Farm, Dr Thomas P. Dixon, informed the committee that in that institution 18 men received the strap in 1951 (17 by the superintendent and one by a judge), 12 men in 1952 (8 by the superintendent and 4 by a judge), and 8 men in 1953 (7 by the superintendent and one by a judge). Dr Dixon continued:

"My main contention is that corporal punishment in an institution of that kind is necessary to maintain control over the prison population ... I think it should be in the control of the superintendent alone because otherwise, if no such physical punishment is given, it will very soon be taken over by the other junior custodial officers in secret ... and pretty soon the superintendent will lose control.

"In the instance of ... the inmate who struck an elderly prisoner, if he had not received corporal punishment from the custodial staff he would have received it from the inmates."

In an attempt to discover whether there was much variation between provinces as far as their own institutions were concerned, the committee sent a questionnaire to the government of each province. Alberta and Saskatchewan stated that CP was never used as a disciplinary measure in their local prisons, only when ordered by the court as part of the sentence. British Columbia sent the most detailed replies, of which the following are extracts:

Q. What persons are ordinarily present?

A. "Doctor, warden and sufficient staff to obscure identity of person administering paddle."

Q. What is the maximum number of strokes administered at any one session?

A. No stated maximum. Ten strokes is the maximum observed at one time."

Q. What is the procedure in detail?

A. "Doctor checks inmate's ability to take punishment. Inmate is strapped to a table, hood is placed over head, ankles and wrists fastened and he is held by officers over shoulders and back. Pants are allowed to drop. Paddle is administered by one of a number of officers at the direction of the Warden. Doctor is in attendance. Warden talks with inmate after punishment and also officers are warned against discussion of details. Record signed by Warden and Doctor."

Q. Does corporal punishment in your opinion operate as a deterrent to the young offender?

"There seems to be some evidence of paddling having been useful in helping young offenders to redirect their activity."

Manitoba sent in broadly similar replies. There seems to be no information from Quebec.

The 1953-55 committee felt unable to arrive at any conclusion as to the retention or abolition of CP and merely recommended that another committee be set up to study the question further!

In Part 2 of this article we consider the opinions of some men who had actually received the strap and their descriptions of the ordeal.


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Copyright C. Farrell 1999, 2003. 2009
Page updated November 2009