Let’s Stop the Whistling Torture

Canada is one of the three civilized countries still using the lash. Penologists say it doesn’t cure criminals

FRED BODSWORTH December 1 1949

Let’s Stop the Whistling Torture

Canada is one of the three civilized countries still using the lash. Penologists say it doesn’t cure criminals

FRED BODSWORTH December 1 1949

THE penitentiary morning bell clangs sharply. The guards come down the block unlocking cells. The prisoner in the third cell waits nervously.

“You won’t be working in the carpentry shop today,” a guard says. “The doctor will see you at 9.”

The prisoner trembles. This is “the day.” No more sleepless nights of waiting. Today the gears of Canadian justice would start, turning to wreak with cold, official impersonality the sentence of the court. “. . . And, you will receive 10 strokes of the lash on your bare back.”

Two guards come back for the prisoner at 9 o’clock. The examination in the prison hospital is brief. Then, the doctor following, they enter a bare, gloomy room where the warden, deputy warden and several other guards wait.

The cat-o’-nine-tails, ugly and ominous, lies on a table. It has a 20-inch, cloth-covered handle with nine, yard-long strands of whipcord attached.

Guards pull off the prisoner’s shirt.

Beside the table stands “the triangle,” a sturdy, three-legged apparatus like a large blackboard easel. The prisoner’s ankles are strapped to the two front legs of the triangle, his wrists to the triangle’s upper point. A horizontal bar across his chest prevents him from slumping forward.

A leather belt is strapped across his kidneys, another around his neck to shield the upper vertebrae. The cat weighs only about nine ounces, but it is a brutal instrument; a misdirected blow against unprotected neck or kidneys could cause serious injury or death.

A canvas screen stops the victim looking sideways to see who wields the lash behind. The doctor moves ahead to watch his face, ready to stop the lashing if the prisoner shows signs of collapsing.

There is a whistling swish. The stiff cords descend. The tender flesh of the victim’s back seems pierced with hundreds of pins. He clenches his teeth to keep from crying out. A cold, impersonal voice chants, “One.”

A long, tormenting pause. The sickening swish again. Once more the cords rip his back. It is more painful than the first, like a shovelful of red-hot coals. He barely hears the voice behind, “Two.”

The doctor takes the prisoner’s pulse, nods approval.

“Three . . . four . . . five.” The prisoner is crying and writhing.

“Six . . . seven . . . eight.” Swollen blue welts and blood blisters appear on his back.

“Nine . . . ten.” And he is half carried, half dragged to the prison hospital. The doctor swabs on antiseptic. Then back to the cell.

Canada is one of the last strongholds of the judicial strap and lash. Practically every other civilized country has abolished these primitive instruments of punishment and torture. The swish of the cat is still heard only in Canada, Egypt, South Africa and the state of Delaware, while Britain still uses the strap for enforcing prison discipline.

But Canada every year still straps and lashes scores of prisoners into an agonized state bordering on semiconsciousness. Does it help to control crime?

Most psychologists and penologists say “no.” Corporal punishment, they say, makes criminals instead of reforming them.

Listen to Dr. Stuart. K. Jaffary, associate professor of social work. University of Toronto, an expert who has studied the treatment of criminals for many years: “When you lash or strap a criminal you only fill him with hate and defiance. In nine cases out of 10 the lash turns him into a hardened, society-hating brute who wants to repeat his crime in sheer revenge.”

J. Alex Edmison, president of the Canadian Penal Association, says, “Many lashed criminals take this attitude: ‘That's that. I’ve paid my debt on my bare back. The slate is clean. Now I can start all over again.’ ”

Dr. Joseph Morsh, professor of psychology, University of British Columbia, adds: “Corporal punishment has proved absolutely useless as a deterrent. It causes antagonism in the prisoner, makes it virtually impossible to rehabilitate him. It is a carryover from ancient times, a method of appeasing public conscience. Society feels guilty because it provides the conditions in which criminals are bred. It is a psychological phenomenon called projection.

“Judges feel very righteous when they sentence lashes,” Morsh continues. “They seem to be engrossed in the legal aspects of criminology and are a long way from having a correct psychological approach. Theirs is a righteous, not a modern progressive, attitude.”

Penologists have been preaching the folly of the lash for years. Most lands have listened and acted. But in Canada, corporal punishment laws still ignore penology’s basic truth—treat a man like a dog and you’ll make a dog out of him.

Canada’s Criminal Code permits two instruments—the cat-o’-nine-tails or lash, administered to the bare back; and the strap, heavy rubber, three inches wide with a wooden handle, administered to the bare buttocks. In British Columbia courts and in prison slang throughout Canada the strap is known as the “paddle.”

A judge or magistrate can order a lashing or strapping as part of the sentence for a crime, or a prison warden can order the strap for breaches of prison discipline. The lash can be sentenced only by a court; for prison discipline only the strap can be used.

Authorities Prefer Secrecy

Canada’s law permits strappings or lashings for these offenses: rape, incest, carnal knowledge of a girl under 14, indecent assault, wife beating, procuring for prostitution, gross indecency between males, armed burglary and robbery with violence.

Every year the judicial statistics branch of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics publishes the number of corporal punishment sentences handed down by Canadian courts. And in recent years the Department of Reform Institutions of Ontario has revealed the frequency with which the strap is used as a disciplinary measure in jails. But otherwise the story of the lash and strap is veiled in a secrecy zealously, almost fanatically, guarded by authorities.

When I asked George H. Dunbar, Ontario minister of reform institutions, how frequently the strap was used in provincial reformatories and prison farms, I was told: “No useful purpose would be served in releasing information of that nature.”

And General Ralph B. Gibson, commissioner of penitentiaries, declined to reveal similar information for the Dominion’s seven federal penitentiaries.

But it’s known that some judges and some provincial prison authorities are turning to other methods of correction. In 1931 Canadian courts handed down 197 lash sentences; by 1947 (the last year reported) it was down to 12 of the lash and 40 of the strap.

Dr. Jaffary comments: “An encouraging trend, but still a far cry from what is needed. Canadian courts still sentence 50 to 75 men each year to the lash or strap. There is no place for it as a court penalty at all.”

There is a slackening in the frequency with which corporal punishment is used for discipline in federal penitentiaries. Until a few years ago wardens had full authority to sentence prisoners to the strap. Now these sentences must first be approved at Ottawa. Prisoner rehabilitation workers say that since this enactment penitentiary strappings have declined.

In provincial prisons use of the strap has also declined in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Some Still Strap Women

But in Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and, to a lesser extent, Nova Scotia, the strap is used regularly on prisoners for breaches of discipline. Wardens have full authority to order its use. Nova Scotia resorts to if sparingly on adult prisoners, more frequently for juveniles.

According to the annual report of the Department of Reform Institutions of Ontario 45 corporal punishment sentences were meted out in Ontario’s city and county jails alone during 1948—almost as many as were ordered by courts all across Canada in 1947.

In this report many pages are devoted each year to provincial reformatories and prison farms. There is never a mention of the strap. Yet last year a university worker studying corporal punishment was able to interview 100 prisoners at Guelph Reformatory alone who had received the strap. And a case worker for a prisoner rehabilitation society told me of one youth strapped seven times during a recent 18-month sentence at Guelph.

Canadian courts cannot sentence women to be strapped or lashed, but in some provincial prisons for women inmates are still strapped for infractions of prison discipline. In July, 1948, a woman offender in a Toronto police court pleaded: “Don’t send me back to Mercer reformatory. I saw girls beaten black and blue there.”

Authorities admitted to newspapermen that, following a recent riot in Mercer reformatory for women, “several” ringleaders were strapped. In Britain, where corporal punishment was retained longer than in most countries, strapping of women has not been permitted since 1914.

The strap is generally regarded as more humane than the lash. It is doubtful, however, whether one is any less brutal than the other. Prisoners who have experienced both say the strap is the more painful.

“They haul you down to the hole,” one Ontario strap victim recounted with bitterness, “and tie you down to the machine so you can’t budge an inch.”

“The hole” is prisoners’ jargon for the corporal-punishment room. “The machine” is a narrow, waist-high table with slightly tilted top.

“They bend you over this table and tie your feet to the floor,” he said. “Then they strap your wrists to the table. They leave your arms in your shirt and throw it over your head so you can’t see. Then they pull down your pants and underwear. The warden just points to a guard, you never find out who tans you.

“Sometimes a prisoner does find out who did it. There are guards at Burwash who are afraid to come to Toronto. They’re afraid they’ll meet somebody they paddled who’ll knock the guts out of them.”

The strap, being heavier, bruises more severely than the lash, but it never cuts the skin. Ex-prisoners say it usually leaves blue swellings two inches thick. “You sleep on your stomach and don’t sit down for a week.”

Sheik Was for the Lash

The lash and strap are diabolically fashioned to produce maximum pain with minimum injury to tissue.

Dr. Edward George Glover, British scientist, writes in his book, “The Psycho-Pathology of Flogging”: “A degree of pain is inflicted which may exceed the limits of individual endurance and produce immediate shock. The amount of shock varies, but can be compared to a surgical operation without an anaesthetic. The cat belongs to the ‘torture’ group of appliances, but has neither the surgical features of some nor the bone-crushing properties of others. Those who have experienced scalds, war wounds, and some sick persons, are in a position to understand the pain of flogging. Others are unable to appreciate it.”

In 1935 a North African sheik visiting Britain, described as “an expert in methods of torture,” callously told newspapermen: “I have given up other ways of torture. The lash is infinitely more efficient; it hurts much more.”

Authorities insist that the whipcord lash now used throughout Canada is more humane than the traditional cat-o’-nine-tails of leather. But in 1938 the Archambault Royal Commission investigating Canada’s penal system found leather lashes in two Canadian jails: Headingly Jail, Man., and Fort Saskatchewan Jail, Alta. At Headingly Jail the leather thongs were knotted every few inches. Horrified penologists had assumed that knotted cats were abolished a century ago.

The fact that a doctor must be present to periodically check the pulse of a flogging victim is evidence that it is recognized as a dangerous punishment. Doctors carefully examine a prisoner’s heart before approving the lash or strap—the intense pain could shock the nervous system and cause heart failure. In Florida 20 years ago a convict died during a lashing and the ‘‘whipping boss” was convicted of second-degree murder.

Several sociologists and students of penal reform told me that faintings occur “not infrequently” despite the fact that a doctor is present.

They Come Back for More

But the real case against corporal punishment of criminals is not its torture. Practically every criminal sentenced to the strap or lash has inflicted violence just as severe on an innocent victim. He deserves no sympathy. To decry the lash merely because it is extremely painful is an emotional and sentimental approach that detracts from the really important considerations. The basic argument against the lash is that in a great majority of cases it turns a criminal into a worse criminal. And in harming him it harms us, the victims of his future crimes.

Does a flogging deter a man from a second offense? Many judges have claimed that the lashed man never comes back. But whenever corporal punishment is broadly and scientifically studied, it is shown that lashed men not only come back, they are more likely to come back.

Canada has no statistics on the deterrent effect of corporal punishment, but three years ago Professor Robert Graham Caldwell, of Virginia, made a comprehensive study of this nature in the state of Delaware. Delaware, the only state in U. S. which hasn’t abolished corporal punishment, still uses a public whipping post (they call it Delaware’s “totem pole”) and flogs for comparatively minor offenses.

Caldwell used the years 1928, 1932, 1936 and 1940 as samples. During those years in the county selected 73 prisoners were lashed and 516 prisoners were convicted of the same crimes but were not lashed. The 516 unlashed criminals were further separated into those who were imprisoned and those released on probation. Then he dug into the subsequent careers of these men to learn how many committed future crimes.

The result: Of the 73 lashed, 69% were again convicted of some crime by 1944. Of the 516 unlashed, 52% were reconvicted. Of those imprisoned, the ratio of repeaters was 61%; for those on probation, 37%.

Were the 516 unlashed men of less criminal nature in the first place? No, for the most were not spared the lash because they deserved it less, but because they appeared before more lenient judges. Men given the most humane treatment (probation) showed the highest rate of reform; men lashed showed the lowest.

Set a Violent Example . . .

Critics said the lash in Delaware was not wielded with enough force to make it really effective. So Caldwell selected another group who were lashed by a particular jailer with a reputation for harsh lashings. Among these, repeaters were 4% more numerous than among those lashed by lighter-armed jailers.

A British investigating committee made similar findings in 1938. The members compared 142 flogged men with 298 men liable to flogging but spared. Among those flogged 55% were subsequently convicted of serious crimes; only 43% of the unflogged repeated.

Flogging, the committee declared, seemed to increase a criminal’s tendency to commit crimes of violence. And it advised that corporal punishment as a court sentence be abolished. Because of the war this wasn’t carried out until 1948. Britain’s new Criminal Justice Act abolishes flogging as a court penalty, allows it for prison discipline only in serious cases of attack on a guard or “inciting mutiny.”

Corporal punishment opponents contend that when an example of violence is set, violent and brutal men will only tend to follow it.

Roger Beames, Toronto case worker for the John Howard Society (which aids rehabilitation of released prisoners), cited two recent cases. Jack and George both got into trouble for the first time, not because they had a serious criminal tendency, but because of a frustrated yearning for adventure.

Jack, 18, was sent to Guelph Reformatory in 1946 to serve 18 months for breaking and entering. A few days after arrival he was strapped for bad behavior. The strapping only made him more defiant, he was strapped again.

Finally, after seven strappings in a few months, he admitted to Beames that he had been beaten into submission. “But as soon as I get out I’ll show those—they can’t scare me!” he declared.

He was discharged and Beames found him a job. He worked one week, collected his first pay, disappeared. Three weeks later police picked him up again for housebreaking. He was sent to penitentiary for two years.

George Learned the Ropes

George, 19, was sent to Guelph Reformatory for a year for auto theft. (“I just wanted to take the girl to a dance,” he pleaded.) He was strapped three times during the year. He entered Guelph an adventurous, impetuous youth; he came out sullen and defiant. Three months later he was back again—21 months for housebreaking.

George told Beames: “I’m smart from now on. No more bucking the system and getting my behind tanned. I know the ropes. I know how to get what I want without catching the paddle for it.”

He was released in the summer of 1948. By fall he was in the penitentiary for a three-year breaking-and-entering stretch.

There is another hidden evil of the lash and strap. The cold-blooded beating of a man tied down so firmly he cannot move must certainly corrupt and demoralize the man forced to carry it out.

A prison doctor once told Justice Hawkins, famous British opponent of flogging: “If you flog a man you make a perfect devil out of him.”

Hawkins corrected: “You make two devils, the flogged and the flogger.”

Virginia’s Professor Caldwell goes farther, says the lash has a demoralizing influence on the whole society which condones it. “It tends to breed in the minds of all an insensibility to human suffering which itself produces crime.”