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Pennsylvania Correctional Emergency Response Teams Face New Scrutiny in “Noose” Controversy

After guards searched their dorm room, Tyson and his roommates noticed something resembling a noose on his bunk. According to Tyson, that noose could only have been left by the CERT members who had searched his unit on July 28, 2020. CERT teams, who typically wear SWAT-style uniforms with no identifying insignias, were initially dispatched to Houtzdale in response to a guard who was accused of bringing drugs into the prison.

Other complaints regarding Pennsylvania CERT team members in the past two years involve the destruction of prisoners’ personal property, including legal documents, defacing of family photos and obituaries, and leaving behind drawings of swastikas or racist and homophobic statements, in four prisons.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson Susan McNaughton told The Philadelphia Inqurier that the department’s investigation did not confirm that the object was a noose, but stated, “Every CERT member is expected to demonstrate a high level of professionalism. ... I cannot legitimize these claims, but I can tell you that the department takes these claims seriously and will investigate.”

Tyson expressed disappointment, stating that the action was a form of “some emotional or psychological terrorism.... It seemed like an allusion to lynching. If they can do that, tie a noose, they might even try to hang somebody. I don’t know,” he said.

Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) said: “Clearly this is not the first time we’ve seen allegations of overt racism amounting to a level of dehumanization.” Other prisoner advocates say problems with CERT teams often occur when they are used in a new institution.

CERT teams, armed 25-person units who specialize in weapons handling, are in every facility, according to McNaughton. “Teams can be deployed to quell disturbances that may develop within a DOC facility. Teams are also used to conduct large-scale search operations. ... CERT is activated when a higher level of security is required to accomplish the mission,” she said.

One infamous incident occurred in 1989 at the former Graterford Prison in Montgomery County when prisoners were physically abused by CERT team members, who used stun guns and kicked and punched others, putting many in the hospital. Thirteen team members were charged, some pleaded guilty, and the rest were acquitted, according to Angus Love, a prisoners’ rights lawyer.

Cynthia Link, a corrections consultant and a former superintendent of Graterford, who herself was a CERT team member, explained, “The teams are self-contained. They pick their members. They work out together. They socialize together. They’re a tight team,” she said. “They develop a culture, often rooted in the culture of their home prison — but amplified by the high stress, emotionally taxing, and isolating job of being a prison emergency responder, wearing riot gear, wielding a baton or rifle.”

“Some people, when they get that sense of power and authority, it makes them feel big and it makes them get dangerous. It makes them think, ‘I can do anything I want,’” she said. “Somehow that gets fueled because they are really very special. The other half of this is, I need some of these guys. I need what you do as a superintendent ... to keep everyone safe,” she said.

It is not clear, however, how vandalizing prisoner property and defacing personal items lends itself to institutional safety or prisoner rehabilitation. 


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