What are Fetters?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2019
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Fetters are restraints which are designed to be worn on the ankles, limiting freedom of movement for the wearer. Many countries use them to transport and handle prisoners, and some also consider the long-term use of fetters on prisoners to be acceptable, leading to some controversy in the international community. Some museums have interesting collections of antique restraints, illustrating the evolution of this simple, but effective, tool.

Evidence suggests that humans have been using various restraints on each other for an extended period of time. Archaeological excavations at prehistoric sites have uncovered evidence of crude fetters, and historical evidence from cultures in many regions of the world indicates that they have been in common use for thousands of years. They also haven't evolved greatly from their original incarnation, although modern versions tend to be more comfortable and easier to secure. The basic design includes two loops designed to secure the ankles, linked together with a short chain or rod to limit movement.


Fetters can be designed in a wide variety of ways. For example, they can be designed much like handcuffs, with a pair of adjustable cuffs linked by a heavy length of chain. They can also take the form of solid leg irons, making walking even more challenging from the wearer by connecting the ankle cuffs with a stiff piece of metal. In some cases, They may be designed so that cuffed hands can be shackled to the chain linking the fetters, ensuring that a prisoner is tightly secured.

The word fetter shares the Latin root ped, which means “foot,” and the word underwent a variety of twists and turns before entering the English language in the 1300s. Someone wearing these restraints is said to be “fettered,” and the idea in the sense of a lack of freedom is also used metaphorically in many English-speaking countries. Historically, in addition to being used to secure prisoners, fetters were also used to hold slaves for transport or punishment.

Early fetters lacked locks, fitting together in a variety of clever ways which were designed to make removal challenging. The use of locks for fetters did not become widespread until locking technology became more affordable, allowing manufacturers to build locks into their restraints. Modern versions, of course, all have locks, and they may have built-in safety features so that they do not hurt the prisoners they are used on.


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Post 2

@strawCake - I think that even fetters made in the past were probably fairly difficult to remove.

Anyway, I'm glad that fetters aren't used long-term anymore (in this country at least). I remember learning in history class that in Europe (and probably this country too) they used to keep prisoners in chains long-term. They often developed skin infections and things like that, because at the time they weren't exactly concerned with the health and hygiene of prisoners.

This seems pretty barbaric to me, so I'm glad the practice has mostly fallen out of favor.

Post 1

I think it's funny how a lot of movies depict people removing their fetters. Usually the hero of the movie has been bound by some bad guys, and he uses his ingenuity to get himself free.

I imagine in real life, it's probably a lot more difficult to remove your own fetters. Especially since, as the article said, technology has advanced so much. I'm sure most modern criminal masterminds have access to new technology (at lest in the movies)!

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