Posts Tagged ‘the prison strap’

“Strap Mercer Riot Leaders, Says Official,” Toronto Star. July 19, 1948. Page 01.

Ringleaders in the Mercer reformatory riot were strapped, A. R. Virgin, director of reform institutions, said today. He was commenting on the statement of a woman in police court today that prisoners ‘were beaten black and blue’ and tear gas used.

Asked if this was correct, Mr. Virgin said he was not going to deny or confirm it, but that ‘we do not hesitate to use tear gas whenever we find it necessary.’

There has been no more trouble at Guelph, he added. He said the men are working hard and those kept in the exercise yard and dormitories are punishment for a demonstration agaisnt the food ‘seemed sorry they had caused trouble.’

Lights in the whole of Ontario reformatory were blazing at 11 o’clock last night, but there was no trouble, Mr. Virgin stated. He said lights usually were out at 10 p.m. Passengers on a train that passes near the reformatory said it was unusual to see the lights on at such a late hour.

‘I just got out of the Mercer last Friday,’ the woman, Lillian Johnson, 50, said in police court, when charged with being drunk, ‘and my nerves were shot after the riots.’

After a list of previous drunk convictions was read by the court clerk, Magistrate Elmore imposed sentence of 40 days.

‘You can’t send me back there,’ said the woman. ‘Why didn’t they print the truth about how we were beaten and given tear gas. I wasn’t in the riot, but I saw those girls beaten black and blue.’

A police matron and a court policeman struggled with accused several minutes before removing her to the cells.

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“Young Punks Are Mixed With Hardened Thieves At Burwash: Ex-Guard,” Globe & Mail. July 10, 1948. Page 07.

Cartier, July 9 (Staff). – Reporting on sick parade, an inmate at Burwash Industrial Farm complained to his staff physician that he pains around the heart. ‘You are quite all right and fit for work,’ the doctor assured him, instructing the guard to escort him to his gang.

Less than half an hour later the man dropped dead, his body was taken to the CNR station in a coal dump-truck.

The Industrial Farm is supposed to be reserved for old offenders, yet around 7 per cent of those doing time there are 18-year-old punks on their first stretch. They are forced to associate with the hardest criminals in the province.

Every man who tries to escape is sentenced to 15 strokes of the strap, regardless of the circumstances or the temptation afforded to him, and the punishment is inflicted in two stages so that the mental torture is often as serve as the physical.

This and other charges were advanced today by Toronto-born James Alexander Smail, 27, a naval vet who went north because of the ‘attractive offers’ advertised by Burwash administration authorities.

He arrived at the tail end of a major riot last October, when 15 carloads of special police had to fire tear gas. He left April 19, and freely predicted to authorities that another riot was in the making. This broke more than a week ago and again tear gas was used.

Smail said that he was suspended without either an explanation or redress and that his appeals have been ignored both by the Department of Reform Institutions and the attorney-general.

Now employed in a railway roundhouse here, Smail said: ‘I am at least $1,500 out of pocket because I fell for that Burwash advertisement. I have done my best to place some vital grievance before the proper authorities, but I have been ignored all down the line.

‘I am still anxious to serve, but that is impossible under the present circumstances. And I do not speak for myself entirely. At least 1,000 other men have passed through the staff within the past year. The turnover is out of all proportion or reason.’

At present there are between 600 and 700 prisoners. In the old days there was one guard for every four inmates. Now the ratio has been almost doubled.

Smail said that he was offered an income of $120 a month and staff housing accommodation which he never received after eight months of service. With deductions for board of $19.50 a month, $5 for room, medical, laundry, dental fees and unemployed insurance his take-home pay dwindled to $87.14 a month. Out of that he had to support his wife, and two children, after renting a house for them in Burwash village, seven miles from the main camp.

‘They even nicked me 25 cents a day to ride to work in a government truck which was also used for transporting prisoners,’ Smail stated. ‘I understand the the inmates, however, rode free of charge.’

The room in which he slept at the farm was big, about 20 feet by 40, but it was also shared by from 10 to 15 other guards.

‘There was about a foot of space between each guard,’ he said. ‘Why even at sea in the navy we had more room.’

Last February Smail and 15 other guards enrolled at a special school of instruction authorized by George Dunbar, Minister of Reform Institutions. Smail topped the class in the final examination with 91 per cent. Few other guard ever broke the 90 mark. ‘And not many of those who did are still on the staff because they received no support in carrying out their instructions,’ he commented.

It was on the day of his dismissal that Smail, acting on instructions, participated in a ‘frisk’ of the 150 prisoners. This resulted in the discovery of live ammunition, knives, shivs or daggers and a considerable quantity of smuggled food, he says.

‘We had been instructed to be on the lookout for stuff like that,’ the former guard stated. ‘Yet when it was over I got the axe. The prisoners put up quite a beef, you see.’

‘An hour later I was told to report to the superintendent’s private office. He simply said: ‘Go home and we will call you in a day or so when this blows over. The prisoners are a little peeved.’ I went home free of charge that day in a staff truck, driven by an inmate with no guard accompanying.

‘Later, the superintendent sent work that I should see him at 8 p.m. at his home. When I got there I was told to sit down in a big leather chair and three senior officers started to quick me. I didn’t want to take abuse from them for doing my duty and I let them know that.

‘Acting Superintendent Brown said ‘I have been in touch with Toronto and on verbal instructions by telephone both you and a sergeant are to be dismissed.’ With that I left.’

Smail recalled two or three incidents where prisoners had been strapped for bolting from the farm under heartbreaking circumstances.

‘I know why one man tried to get away,’ he stated. ‘He received word of trouble at home. This prisoner was married and was a father. As soon as he was caught he was given the usual sentence – 15 strokes of the strap, and that is mandatory in such cases.

‘It was obvious even to his guards that he was in a frantic state of mind while at work and he should have been under strict supervision. Instead of that he was given opportunity to attempt to gain his freedom. And the temptation was too strong.

‘Now a strapping is not a pretty spectacle, I may assure you. The prisoner is hitched firmly to a post and there are steel bonds around his arms, his stomach and his feet. He is blindfolded and his shirt is pulled up to his blindfold.

‘The guard assigned to inflict the punishment has a strap about three feet long. He flails the man with it eight times and none of the strokes are gentle. It leaves the man black and blue.

‘After those eight strokes the man is bustled off to solitary confinement. He is stripped of his clothing, handed a nightgown and tossed into a cell. For the next seven days and nights he must lie on the cement floor – for there is no cot in solitary, you see.’

But another pathetic incident lingers in Smail’s mind. There was the day when a fresh load of ‘fish’ or new inmates arrived. Among them was a blond-haired lad of about 18. It was plain to all that he had never been in jail before. When he lined up for dinner, the kid picked up a tray, as he would in a city cafeteria, to collect his food. The old-timers just hold their plates out. Burwash is supposed to be the place for the old-timers, the guard pointed out.

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“Both defenders and opponents of corporal and capital punishment were
troubled by evidence of sloppy procedures and slipshod workers. And they
were genuinely surprised to learn how executions were carried out. Since
1868 public executions had been outlawed in Canada, a political move that
transformed a highly dramatic act into a strictly scripted technocratic procedure.
Hanging remained familiar to Canadians, largely through popular
memory and popular culture (such as dime novels). Yet the actual procedures
and personnel had become mysterious shadow events and characters,
conjured up in newspaper writers’ accounts. Even the identity of the hangman
remained secret, disguised under the “Mr. Ellis” brand name. One of
the committee’s important objectives was to determine how Canada’s techniques
of inflicting death compared to procedures in other civilized countries.
Investigators anticipated that coolly competent professionals would
conduct modern penal administration, but they were shocked to learn otherwise.
As their mandate dictated, if lethal gas, already in use in the U.S.,
could be delivered more professionally, then it might well be a more civilized
means of putting people to death.

With these criteria in mind, Ministry of Justice bureaucrats surveyed state
officials from Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, and North Carolina,
the first U.S. jurisdictions to use lethal gas.  In particular, they asked
whether experts were required, or if they employed “a man of the type who
ordinarily served as hangman?” None of the respondents reported experiencing
trouble finding men fit to carry out the job. In most cases, a regular
guard from the penitentiary was recruited, in some states receiving a bonus
for his extra duties. Furthermore, subjecting the condemned to hydrocyanide
gas was fast and effective. As long as the condemned person was securely strapped and the chamber was sealed, the warden of the North
Carolina State Prison stated, “there is nothing left for the executioner to
do except to press the electric switch, and once the [cyanide] pellets fall
into the [sulphuric acid] liquid, there can be no mistake or bungling, and
death is a certainty for the victim.” The Nevada warden registered his agreement:
“No chance for bungling or messy mistakes.”

In contrast, the committee heard from witnesses who suggested that
hanging required the services of a skilled craftsman. Upon learning that
the Canadian bureaucracy of capital justice had not yet established professional
standards for hangmen, members wondered how applicants were
screened and incumbents evaluated. The committee learned that Canada
retained only one executioner, who traveled around the country dispatching
the condemned. The deputy sheriff of Toronto complained that the latest
“Mr. Ellis” had more than Tommasina Teolis’s beheading and the Winnipeg
mishap to his discredit. Deputy Wills added that he had personally
witnessed another incident in which the hangman had rushed down to the
pit and yanked a victim’s legs because he had miscalculated the man’s drop
and failed to snap his neck. One MP, surprised that there was no training
or evaluation of hangmen, surmised that “A new hangman would have to
do it pretty much by guess, wouldn’t he?” Wills agreed, shocking the committee
and prompting one MP to declare: “that is murder.” The chanciness
of unregulated procedures, not the eventual outcome, clearly prompted
this spontaneous outburst of repugnance.

According to committee members,
Canada had a problem on its hands if it could not find men trained to
do the dirty work of punishment properly.
Evidence of botched hangings was largely anecdotal, however, and contradicted
by stories of hangings conducted efficiently. The guards, the chaplain,
and the executioner were all strict professionals, according to the
sheriff of Montreal, Oscar Belanger. A man who had presided over twenty-eight
executions, Belanger attested to the speedy procedures that allowed
prison officials to take a man from his cell, escort him to the scaffold, strap
his arms and legs, place a hood over his head, and pull the switch-a kind
of lethal ballet choreographed for a five-minute private performance. In
the end, the committee sided with those who felt that Canada’s hanging personnel were up to the task. But it suggested that one central penal institution,
staffed and designed to carry out the death penalty with utmost
efficiency, ought to replace the existing system, which stipulated that condemned
persons be executed in the jurisdictions where they had been convicted.
At such an institution, practices could be standardized and evaluated
more effectively, thereby reducing the risk of mistakes that made the
death penalty seem as barbaric as murder.

By the time that the Joint Committee on Capital and Corporal Punishment
deliberated in the mid-1950s, the penal personnel problem remained
unsolved. Executions continued to be carried out by the roving “Mr. Ellis”
and his ad hoc teams of local helpers, men of uncertain competence
and nerve. But this committee’s mandate was wider than the 1937 committee’s,
and members devoted more attention to the administrative procedures
that took place long before the death penalty or whippings were
carried out. In Weberian terms, by the 1950s Canadian public leaders extolled
the values of legal formalism and rationality so highly that they invested
considerable energy trying to meet those standards in the bureaucratic
administration of public life. The federal state, buoyed by the
unprecedented powers assumed during the Second World War, enthusiastically
expanded its scope and its inclination toward self-analysis. Establishing
a joint committee to review corporal and capital punishment was
only one product of the federal government’s broader commitment to
streamline public administration in the 1950s. For instance, in 1956, the
same year that the Joint Committee submitted its final report, another committee
appointed “to inquire into the principles and procedures” in the
Justice Department’s Remissions Branch presented its criticism of the informality
and procedural anomalies in the old Ticket of Leave system. In the same period an independent royal commission evaluated the legal
defense of insanity and advised that psychiatric definitions be standardized
and applied uniformly.

In keeping with these procedural preoccupations,
the Joint Committee members raised similar concerns about the legal and
political administration of corporal and capital punishment.
Although the Criminal Code defined a limited set of crimes for which
judges could order sentences of corporal punishment, and stipulated that women and children could not be whipped, its application was discretionary.
In general, crimes involving attempted or actual physical assaults,
especially those of a hetero- or homosexual nature, carried corporal punishment
provisions, but robberies and physical assaults on women were
included too. Whippings and paddlings were also carried out in prisons
as punishment for institutional infractions, as annual prison and penitentiary
reports indicated. Committee members were disturbed to discover that
the rate of infliction, both of judicially and institutionally ordered corporal
punishment, varied considerably over time and between jurisdictions. The only certainty, that women’s bodies were exempt from physical chastisement,
was an axiomatic exemption, barely worthy of note. Inconsistencies
on other grounds received closer attention. It became evident that
a judge could sentence one man to fifteen lashes and another, found guilty
of the same offense, simply to a prison term. Once inside, wardens could
exercise even more discretion, although it was clear that the lash had been
used more freely in the pre-Second World War period. Even the instruments
of pain varied from prison to prison. As one committee member
ruminated, “the punishment that might be inflicted in one part of Canada …
might be entirely different to what you suffer in another part of Canada
because they used an instrument which inflicted much less pain.” Of
course, the opposite was also possible, thereby consigning all imprisoned
men to a lottery of pain.

Getting the right man for the job was just as much a concern when it
came to corporal punishment as it was with hanging. On the one hand, whipping was neither a matter of expertise nor as unusual a craft as that
practiced by executioners. Parents, teachers, and military authorities could
all claim some experience wielding paddles, canes, straps, and belts. On
the other hand, the object of corporal punishment-to inflict pain-was far
more difficult than death to measure and far trickier to associate with civility.
Medical officers were required to attend whippings, but they were
merely expected to determine whether or not a prisoner was physically “fit”
to withstand the punishment. As one jail surgeon testified, it was impossible
for guards to administer ten strokes of the strap without drawing blood.
However, he had only stopped corporal punishment sessions, as he put it,
when he “felt that more damage was being done than was meant to be
done.” Thus, the hangman’s art could be measured in terms of swiftness
and sureness, but the pain produced by whips and paddles was incalculable.
If a certain degree of physical “damage” was required to civilize
ruffians, how much would amount to torture?

Discomfort over the idiosyncratic application of physical penalties expressed
itself in arcane exchanges between members and witnesses who
appeared before the 1954 committee. Unfortunately interviews with former
prisoners who had been punished were not published. But men who supervised
whippings were permitted to speak in open committee hearings.
Claiming to adhere to strict rules of procedure, wardens averred that they
and their guards were scrupulous. As they pointed out, only the stipulated
number of lashings was inflicted at specified points in inmates’ sentences;
medical men called a halt to sessions if prisoners seemed seriously ill;
whippings were carried out on special apparatuses in private chambers; and
care was taken not to damage the head or vital organs. But when the committee
members pressed witnesses about the infliction of pain, they shattered
all faith that professionalism and standardization, two of the hallmarks
of a civilized justice system, governed the delivery of pain. Since one guard
was likely to whip or lash a man harder than another, committee members
worried that prisoners might be subjected to different degrees of pain.
Warden Allan of the Kingston Penitentiary confirmed their suspicions:   

“There is bound to be a variation in the intensity of the strokes. That is
bound to happen; we cannot help it." His admission sparked a series of
questions evocative of the modem obsession with detail and precision: 

FULTON: It is clear the object is to inflict pain? 

A: Yes….

WINCH: Would you just raise the arm and strike down, or do you

A: With the lash you have to raise your arm and strike down. With the
strap, you swing.

FULTON: Have you any regulations which determine the length of the
arc? Could they bring it from the back and over the head?

A: Most of them let the thongs rest on their shoulder and come down
this way.

Would be mostly a forearm movement?

A: Yes.

FULTON: And what about the extent of the swing with the strap?

A: That may vary.

FULTON: Do you have any regulations or instructions to your own
officers as to how far back they shall carry their arm before they
start the forward motion?

A: No….

CHAIR (BROWN): The fact remains that it could vary from prisoner
to prisoner?

Oh yes, it can vary. 

Committee members were surprised that ordinary guards, not specially
trained professionals, inflicted whippings and lashings. The option of a
whipping machine (an idea first entertained by Bentham in the late eighteenth
century) was briefly considered but rejected on account of possible
malfunctions.48 In the end, the Joint Committee recommended in 1956 that
judicially ordered corporal punishment, unlike the death penalty, could
safely be abolished, not because pain was an inappropriate element in
punishment but because its imposition was "inconsistent and inequitable.”
Squeamish guards evidently “‘went through the motions”’ reluctantly,
whereas others indulged their “sadistic impulses” in performing these duties,
which they found not at all distasteful. Neither scenario conformed
to the aims of civilized justice: sure, steady, and dispassionate. Furthermore, committee members seemed embarrassed to have learned that “Canada was
one of very few countries in the democratic world still using corporal punishment.” As a tool of institutional discipline, it might continue to play a
role, the Final Report declared, but as a discretionary denunciatory flourish
in sentencing, its time had passed.”

–  Carolyn Strange,  “The Undercurrents of Penal Culture: Punishment of the Body in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada.” Law and History Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 352-362.

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