On July 28, after staff searched their dorm at State Correctional Institution Houtzdale, Aaron Tyson and his cellmates were left to sort through the disordered rubble of their property.
Tyson spotted something unfamiliar peeking out of a pile on his bunk: The frayed end of a string made from a torn sheet. He pulled it free and held it up to show the others, asking them what it was.
“That looks like a noose,” he said one told him.
Tyson and two other men who witnessed his discovery say the noose was left by a Correctional Emergency Response Team — colloquially a CERT team, a black-clad, SWAT-like group of state prison staff that does not wear badges or name tags as it conducts searches and other special operations. The team was called into SCI Houtzdale for searches the same week a guard there was charged with trafficking drugs into the prison.
In at least four state prisons over the last two years, including SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County, prisoners have accused CERT teams of actions including destroying legal documents, smearing food or detergent into paperwork or clothing, or explicitly invoking hate symbols, such as hand-drawn swastikas or lewd, racist and homophobic epithets scrawled across family photos and clipped obituaries.
A Department of Corrections spokesperson, Susan McNaughton, said an investigation into the Houtzdale allegation was completed and it had been determined staff did not make a noose. She did not respond to follow-up questions to confirm whether the noose existed or where it came from. No staffer was disciplined as a result of the allegations at Phoenix.
But, McNaughton said in an email, “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, a 45-year-old Black man from Philadelphia, said he would not normally speak out — not about the destruction of his property, not even the photos of his sister and mother in their coffins being torn up and tossed on the floor by a toilet. But the noose, he said, amounted to “some emotional or psychological terrorism.” It seemed like an allusion to lynching, he said: “If they can do that, tie a noose, they might even try to hang somebody. I don’t know.”
Robert Brookins and Barshay Dunbar said they saw Tyson find the noose. All three said they filed grievances that were quickly denied.
In late August, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) organized a call-in day about the incident. ALC’s Bret Grote said that only then were the prisoners interviewed.
In his view, it’s part of a pattern. “Clearly this is not the first time we’ve seen allegations of overt racism amounting to a level of dehumanization," he said.
CERT teams are not new to the Department of Corrections. Each state prison has a 25-person team, which receives specialized gear and training on topics like weapons handling, chemical munitions, search procedures, riot baton, and building entry. Those teams are part of three regional teams that come together for twice-yearly training.
“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,” McNaughton said.
On some occasions, CERT members from multiple institutions are called in for those special operations — and prisoners say it’s those traveling CERT teams that have left a path of destruction and hate symbols.
Angus Love, a longtime prisoners' rights lawyer, said CERT teams' most notable turn in the news came in 1989, after prisoners were transported out of SCI Camp Hill during a riot at that prison to the now-closed Graterford Prison in Montgomery County. “The CERT team was all pumped up and made the inmates walk a gauntlet of CERT team members, and as they walked, they were shocked with stun guns, kicked, punched, etc., and many ended up in the hospital.” Thirteen CERT members were charged in federal court; some pleaded guilty, while the rest were largely acquitted.
More recently, he pointed to the 2018 mass transfer of prisoners from Graterford, which was being decommissioned, to Phoenix.
“They feared too many of the Graterford guards were African American guys from the same neighborhoods as the inmates and they were too friendly, so they brought in CERT teams from upstate,” Love said.
Scores of prisoners complained that their possessions were vandalized or stolen by the CERT teams, or smeared with food or detergent.
In federal lawsuits and a private criminal complaint in Montgomery County Court, they disclosed photocopies of family photos covered in swastikas, or defaced with drawings of penises scrawled near the mouths of young children. Several provided copies of photographs of loved ones in coffins that were torn up, sliced up or defaced. A prisoner who alleged his Native American spiritual objects had been stolen or damaged said in a federal lawsuit that the loss was so painful, he had attempted suicide and been hospitalized.
The DOC ended up paying out at least $70,000 of taxpayers' money to compensate prisoners at Phoenix.
The dynamic of these teams is complicated, said Cynthia Link, a corrections consultant and a former superintendent of Graterford, who for a brief time served on a CERT team.
“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.”
Since the incident at Phoenix, similar claims have emerged.
Shamone Woods, then a prisoner at SCI Greene, alleged in a federal lawsuit that a CERT team in 2018 trashed all his personal property, including photos and legal paperwork for his case.
And in January, at SCI Mahanoy, Russell Showers described a scene almost identical to what happened at Phoenix.
A CERT team searched his dorm, he said, acting like “teenagers on mischief night." Just like at Phoenix, he found peanut butter smeared on clothing, personal items taped to windows, eyeglasses broken, toilet paper and laundry detergent strewn everywhere.
Most disturbing was the vandalism he said was done to his family photos. He provided photocopies: penises and vulgar, racial comments drawn on pictures of his 8-year-old granddaughter; homophobic slurs on photos of his teenage nephew and an uncle; and a swastika drawn on a picture of Showers himself with the words “white power fag.”
Given that he will soon be considered for parole, he said, he was wary of speaking out. “A lot of people here are afraid to voice anything, stand up for anything," he said in a letter.
He said he filed a grievance, but had not received a response.
Link said the investigations into such incidents are done in earnest. But hard proof is required, otherwise attempts to discipline staff are overturned on appeal.
“It can’t be circumstantial,” she said. “There would have to be some kind of corroborating witness, because nobody is going to believe an inmate.”