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The Canadian Prison Strap

by C. Farrell
With additional research by "Diogenes"

Part 2: From the Receiving End

In Part 1 of this article were some descriptions of corporal punishment in Canadian prisons and how it was used, and some opinions on it by officials and other observers. Most of the material came from the Minutes of Evidence to the Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons on Capital and Corporal Punishment and Lotteries of 1953-5.

We saw how the usual instrument for judicial CP, and the only instrument for internal prison discipline CP, was a large leather strap, euphemistically termed 'the paddle'. Its precise dimensions varied from one institution to another but it was always applied across the bare buttocks.

Drawing partly on the same document, let us now consider the Canadian prison strap from the recipient's point of view.

One of the committee's witnesses, A.M. Kirkpatrick of the John Howard Society, quoted the following testimony from a 1951 study. The speaker is a youth in a reformatory who had received four strokes:

"It was an awful experience. They put you in a machine, your hands and legs are clamped so that you are in a bending position. Your shirt is drawn over your head and you don't see anything from then on. They put something around your back, and then they strap you on the backside.

"The first stroke I couldn't holler it knocked the wind out of me. They wait about 20 seconds between each stroke to allow you to get your wind back. I couldn't holler or anything for the first three.

"When I got the fourth, I got my wind and hollered. I went all to pieces. I guess I was pretty badly shaken. I think the machine is pretty cruel."

In 1955 the committee itself directed its Counsel to obtain interviews with "a representative group of former prisoners who had been subjected to corporal punishment". The following are extracts from the Counsel's summary of some of those interviews.

Mr A

"This witness was approximately 30 years of age. Since 1939 he had had ten adult sentences: nine to provincial institutions and one to a federal penitentiary. All convictions related to car thefts and none involved crimes of violence. During the interview he was calm and relaxed. He did not appear to hold any grudge against those who had inflicted corporal punishment on him.

"The strapping had occurred in a provincial institution about seven years ago. The witness was sentenced to ten strokes for refusal to work. He described the strapping in some detail. He felt humiliated because he considered it was a child's punishment. He did not think the strapping had done him any particular harm. It had no real effect in influencing his subsequent conduct [...]

"He had not cried out when strapped although he knew others who had. The other inmates had kidded him somewhat after his strapping but had shown no particular sympathy towards him. His skin was not broken but he remained bruised for about two weeks. He had been placed in solitary confinement for the same offence and he regarded solitary confinement as a worse punishment than strapping."

Mr B

"This witness was approximately 28. He had had two terms in provincial institutions, one in a county jail, and one in a federal penitentiary. He received nine strokes for malingering during his second provincial prison sentence.

"During the interview, the hatred he felt for those who had subjected him to corporal punishment was very obvious and his testimony was given in an electrified atmosphere. He stressed that he had had nine strokes and did not utter a groan. He felt that he had been unjustly punished.

"He said that he did not know what 'corporal punishment' meant until he was brought to the room where he was strapped. His reaction to corporal punishment was that it was 'strictly torture'. After he got it he was in more trouble. He spent more time in the 'hole', i.e. solitary confinement. Corporal punishment was much worse than the 'hole'."

Mr C

"This witness was approximately 30. In the early 1940's [i.e. in his late teens] he had served two terms in a provincial prison for theft [...] He had received eight strokes of the strap during his second term.

"He refused to say for what offence he had been strapped but readily implied that he deserved this punishment. He cried out when strapped because he thought that if he did not it would be laid on heavier. He did not know in advance how many strokes he would receive. Although his face was covered he was able to detect which officer had given him the strapping.

"The strapping had influenced his subsequent conduct [...] He had 'toed the line' thereafter. He had no feeling of hostility about the strapping; it was 'just one of those things' and he couldn't do anything about it.

"He thought a certain proportion of prisoners would never respond to anything except corporal punishment. In his view, corporal punishment was likely to be administered more severely for an offence within the institution than when it was imposed by a court [...] He, personally, would fear the strap more than imprisonment.

Mr D

"This witness was thirty-three years of age, had a grade eight education, was single and had no trade nor any steady record of employment. He had been almost continuously in prison since 1940, having served five sentences in provincial jails, and two in federal penitentiaries.

"He had received five sentences of corporal punishment for infractions against prison discipline commencing with two sentences of three and five strokes respectively in one prison sentence in 1942.

"In 1945 he had received seven and later fifteen strokes for participation in a prison disturbance and for attempted escape. Several years later, he received ten strokes for participating in a disturbance in a federal penitentiary and a further ten strokes were deferred and never inflicted.

"The witness described his strappings and made comparisons between the methods of federal penitentiaries and provincial institutions. In penitentiary, the prisoner is bent over a table and strapped down, while in one province he is placed in what is called "the machine" and strapped in a more or less upright position. The witness saw little to choose between the two methods.

"The witness also compared the method of awarding corporal punishment in the two types of institutions. In the provincial institutions, corporal punishment is inflicted almost immediately following the sentence by the head of the institution. In the federal penitentiaries the sentence has to be confirmed at Ottawa. The witness found waiting for the confirmation very hard on his nerves. The waiting was a severe punishment in itself. The witness said that, where he had been sentenced to corporal punishment along with other inmates, he had striven to be the first to have it inflicted in order to avoid waiting.

"The witness said that the strapping had not influenced his conduct for good. It was a degrading punishment worthy of 'Julius Caesar'. It was outmoded. It was torture. The pain from the strapping was much less important than the loss of pride and the humiliation. The principal feeling is that of humiliation and embarrassment resulting from being tied down and subjected to a childish punishment in the presence of prison staff.

"The witness had not cried out when strapped but he had exhibited his hostility to the guards by talking back to them afterwards. He had to do this to relieve the tension after being strapped. The strapping had made him a little more cocky, a little more belligerent with the guards. However, it did not mean that he was a big shot among his friends in jail. In fact, it had been embarrassing [...] He felt foolish for being involved in a thing where he could get strapped.

"The witness stated that he felt he had deserved the strappings he had received and professed to be much less hostile towards those who had inflicted them than he was at the time of punishment."

Mr E

"This witness gave his age as thirty-seven but records indicate it may be forty. From 1941 to 1945 he was almost continuously in prisons [...] He had been subject to corporal punishment four times in institutions. He had three sentences of corporal punishment in his first term in a provincial prison; one of fifteen strokes for attempted escape and two other sentences for fighting with a fellow inmate. He received corporal punishment again in his second term in a provincial prison for fighting with a fellow inmate.

"His first sentence of fifteen strokes for attempted escape was administered in two parts separated by one week. The skin was not cut but marks like those left by varicose veins remained for about two years. He was happy to be strapped rather than to receive another two years for attempting to escape.

"Although his face was covered, he knew which of the guards administered the punishment. He still harbours feelings of resentment and hostility against the guard who administered the punishment.

"Later in his first term in prison he received two further sentences of five strokes each for fighting with an inmate. He regarded both of these sentences as unjust because the other inmate started the fight on both occasions.

"In his second sentence in a provincial institution, he received another strapping for fighting with an inmate and this was administered with the new type of strap with holes spaced along its face. He regarded this strap as dangerous and stated that, if the guard administering it dislikes the prisoner and pulls back on the strap as he lays it on, he can cut the prisoner very badly. He professed to know of one person who had been in hospital for two months after he was strapped in this manner."

Mr F

"This witness was twenty-four years of age, single, and before getting into trouble, had served a brief term in the army, where he had experienced some disciplinary problems and had served terms of detention.

"He was sentenced to corporal punishment during his first prison term in a county jail. In a moment of anger he threw a bowl of soup at the Warden. He received four strokes of the strap. The strap left some bruises and welts and one cut but did not hurt very much. The physical pain was much less than the humiliation of having to take down his trousers and go through a punishment which he regarded as a childish punishment.

"It was a degrading experience and caused him to be bitter at the time although he had overcome his bitterness. He had yelled when receiving his strapping because he had been told that if he did not yell the guard would think it was not hurting. He had been hostile to the guard who had given him the punishment but had not been able to find out which guard it was. One effect of the punishment was to make him 'one of the gang' among his fellow inmates. It was his opinion that corporal punishment had no useful purpose in controlling disturbances within institutions."


Another recipient of the strap was the gay playwright John Herbert, whose 1967 play and 1970 film Fortune and Men's Eyes was based partly on his own experiences as a young man in Guelph Reformatory and Mimico Reformatory. According to an article formerly on the "Canadian Theatre" website but now gone, at Mimico in 1948 Herbert refused to work. He "was locked into an iron whipping machine with hip and ankle clamps and beaten on the buttocks by a guard wielding a piece of cowhide strap until he fainted and the jail doctor supervising the punishment ordered the beating to stop".


The most detailed and graphic description of receiving the Canadian prison strap comes from the autobiography of the French-Canadian criminal Roger Caron, dubbed by the press "Mad Dog Caron", who had attempted to rob banks as a teenager in the 1950s and was still in prison when the book was published in 1978. The book is remarkably well written for a man with little formal education and whose mother tongue was not English, and we may guess that some of the actual words are those of his "editor", Elizabeth Hemsworth, but there seems no reason to suppose that the facts were not as stated.

In September 1955 he is in Guelph Reformatory in Ontario:

"The following morning I was taken up before the superintendent, Good-Time Charley. He was so called because he took delight in forfeiting a portion of a prisoner's earned remission. He was a tall, well-built, distinguished-looking man, who carried a gun in a shoulder holster and jogged a mile in the gym every morning before he started his work day.

I had four duckets, the most serious being assault on a guard. I pleaded Not Guilty and the court found me Guilty as charged and this time sentenced me to ten strokes of the Paddle. I would visit the Limbo Room after all.

Adhering to formality in the case of corporal punishment, two guards escorted me in handcuffs to the shrink's office for him to judge if I was mentally fit to undergo such severe punishment. All the prisoners in the joint considered him to be slightly off-centre himself. 'Take him away, gentlemen,' said the doctor, displeased at my tart reply to his weird questions. 'Just the therapy he needs.'

Our next visit was to the joint hospital where the Croaker checked out my heart, pulse, temperature, and my buttocks to see if I could physically withstand the punishment that was in store for me without having a heart attack or something like that. What an unfeeling bastard he was.

It was shortly after one o'clock in the afternoon by the time the elevator descended into the catacombs with me still in handcuffs and a dozen witnesses escorting me to the Limbo Room, just like I was going to the electric chair. It was cold and damp as our solemn procession moved slowly along down that long stretch of spooky nothingness. I was shivering visibly because I was cold and scared, and only seventeen years old. I had heard so many gruesome stories about the paddle, how it castrated one guy and how it crippled another. In my heart was also the fear of displaying fear.

By the time we came to a halt before a metal door my teeth were rattling and my knees were weak but I was determined to be brave. A long key was inserted, followed by an audible click; next, two locking bars were withdrawn, sounding shockingly loud in the deathly silence. Finally the imposing door squeaked open and I was shoved into the centre of a large whitewashed room that had a naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling on a cord. A sudden breeze swayed the light causing our shadows to dance eerily about the room as ripples of terror ran up and down my spine. Anchored to the far wall I saw a mass of metal tubing contoured to embrace a human form and, affixed to it, shackles and restraining straps. Hanging from pegs on the left wall were three leather straps with wooden handles, so thick and coarse as to barely sag. Each one was perforated with hundreds of tiny holes designed to trap and rip the flesh from the buttocks.

The cuffs were removed and the gravelly voice of Marble Mouth ordered me to 'Step right into it, boy.'

Shivering, I did as I was told.

'Now drop your pants ... all the way down!'

My shirt was pulled over my head and so was a black hood. My ankles were firmly shackled as were my knees. A wide metal band encircled my waist and was locked into place to protect my kidneys. My arms were pulled straight out ahead of me and cuffed. Naked from head to foot -- securely anchored in an upright position -- I was totally at their mercy.

Everything was in readiness. The doctor stood on my right monitoring my pulse throughout the ordeal. A guard stood on my left gripping the wooden handle of the strap waiting for the signal to begin. I was cold and terrified and shivering and trying to brace myself for the blow.

The eerie ritual began when the dozen witnesses ominously scraped the soles of their shoes on the floor in unison, deliberately done to confuse my sense of direction.

'ONE!' I clenched my teeth and my body went rigid as the strap sliced through the air, 'CRACK!' Like a pistol shot, it made solid contact with my buttocks, my head snapped backwards, while violently driving my shackled body forward. White searing pain exploded throughout my being and blood gushed from my lips as I struggled to stifle a scream. It was brutal and it was horrible. My whole body vibrated like a band of tempered steel and my mind filled with nightmares as I awaited the next blow.

'Two!' swish, crack! 'Three!' swish, crack! 'Four!' swish, crack! 'Five!' swish-crack!

Over and over again I heard the scraping of the shoes, the sharp command, the long seconds, the strap cutting through the air, the explosion and then the crazy-out-of-this-world pain that struck terror into my very soul. Finally it was all over. Ten strokes of the paddle and I didn't scream or beg as so many did. That was very, very important to me.

When they pulled the hood from my head I stared at them with blood dripping down the corners of my mouth, angry and yet proud, asking myself how they would have fared in my place. They just stood there in their gestapo like uniforms talking among themselves and not looking at me. The Croaker squirted white foamy stuff inside my mouth to stop the bleeding and then rubbed salve on my mutilated buttocks as the blood trickled down my legs.

Coincidentally, as I emerged on the main floor of the tower flanked by two guards I was advised that the Provincial Parole Board had been patiently waiting to interview me -- that my eligibility date was on this very day. Painfully, I limped into a magnificently designed room, decorated with elegant ornaments and artistically-designed fireplace just like a Governor's mansion. Seated around a curved, black mahogany table were five well-dressed men and one elderly lady.

When I walked out half an hour later I was in excruciating pain, because the numbness had worn off. I guess the parole board members understood my silence, because my mouth was full of bloody cotton. The lady had told me that Sergeant Tracy had dropped in to speak on my behalf, also informing them that I had actually done nothing wrong. The chairman seemed to think otherwise.

'The fact that you reacted in the way you did indicates, at least to me, that you are harbouring some very dangerous hostilities. All of which is not healthy to yourself or to society in general. It does not indicate rehabilitation on your part. Nevertheless we are going to defer judgment for ten days. Perhaps corporal punishment will have been a rewarding lesson to you after all.'

Lying on my belly much later that evening I thought about what the chairman had said, about that bizarre paddle and rack being a rewarding lesson to me. In my heart I wondered what type of person could feel rewarded through that kind of discipline and retribution.


Ten days later to my great surprise I was granted a parole, but I was feeling much too empty to rejoice. My buttocks were still horribly discoloured and welted, although I was no longer limping or hurting very much. But deep down, where it really counted, I was aching real bad."

Strapped on his bare seat: Roger Caron - CLICK TO ENLARGE (picture will open in a new window)
Click to enlarge

Shortly afterwards, Caron escaped. While on the run he attempted another armed robbery but was caught. The Toronto press made a big splash of his escapade, including this picture (right) immediately after his arrest, which thus shows him about one month after his first paddling.

Caron soon found himself back at Guelph and on another charge. This time the warden sentenced him to the maximum twelve strokes:

January 1956. A few minutes after some guards deposited me in a cell in the segregated unit on D-3, Sergeant Tracy showed up at the front of the bars and with an unusual look of concern on his rugged features he said, 'That's a strange way for you to be walking, lad, let's see what they did to you?'

Standing in the centre of my cell and trembling visibly I dropped my pants and when the sergeant saw all that mangled flesh his face went livid with indignation and pounding his hamlike fist into the palm of his hand, he muttered, 'The goddamn simpletons! Do you know who did it to you that way?'

Unable to talk because of the cotton inside my gums and being extremely upset I just shook my head from side to side.

Giving me a penetrating look he added, All right then you just calm down and I'll go and get the nurse. As for working you spend the rest of the day in your cell and tomorrow too.' Still clenching his fist he stalked off.

Lying on my belly on my bunk I gritted my teeth as the male nurse applied iodine to all the lacerations on my buttocks, my lower stomach, and the back and inside of my thighs, where the sadist wielding the strap had purposely extended his swing so that the thick leather would encircle my hips to lash at those sensitive areas. It was a calculated effort on the part of the officials to try and break me down and make me beg for mercy so that the victory could be theirs.

I was only seventeen years old but even then I would have choked on my own blood before giving them that satisfaction. So it was that I received the maximum number of strokes and even the nurse who was accustomed to treating the after effects of corporal punishment was appalled by the grisly sight. Each stroke from the paddle had raised a welt one inch thick, four inches wide, and about fifteen inches long. Multiply that by twelve and you can picture the soggy mess, somewhat like second degree burns. (I learned later that Sergeant Tracy had stormed into the doctor's office and threatened to perform major surgery on his face for having stood by while I was flogged in this illegal manner.)

Later that Monday afternoon when my neighbours trooped in from work, those that were still on the Buller when I left stopped briefly in front of my cell to give me words of encouragement and, as was traditional, to ask to see the degree of punishment I had received at the hands of the enemy. In a way it was like a warrior's test, something to be proud of if you withstood the very real temptation to ask the enemy to stop, because then it could be said that they had failed to break your spirit.

On the other hand it was common knowledge that the first ones to break down and to beg for mercy were the loud-mouthed bullies. Always they would try to cover up by saying how brave and rebellions they were while getting their ass beaten, but the guards never failed to spread the real version in their contempt. They would tell how, after the first stroke, the guy never stopped screaming and begging for mercy and that they stopped after five strokes. I am not saying that I could blame anyone for breaking down under such torture. What is contemptible is for a coward to brag that he was extraordinarily brave. On the same subject, it was strongly rumoured that a certain individual high up on the administration totem pole got off his jollies every time he attended one of these bruised flesh matinees.

(Go-Boy!, The True Story of Life Behind Bars by Roger Caron, McGraw-Hill Ryerson 1978, Hamlyn Paperback 1983)

What is "the machine", this "mass of tubing" to which Caron and others were shackled for their paddlings? In Part 3 of this article we look at the equipment used for CP in Canadian prisons.  Main menu page

Copyright © C. Farrell 1999, 2001, 2003, 2009
Page updated May 2009