Pa. CERT training helps sharpen skills

Pa. prison's 31-member emergency response training team hosted a demonstration for 100

Associated Press

EBENSBURG, Pa. — Standing over a thick blue mat, a Cambria County Prison corrections officer posing as an inmate hurled insults and threats at his fellow officers.

Four members of the county's Correctional Emergency Response Team, or CERT, formed a line in front of the officer and tried to talk him down.

When he refused to cooperate and lunged, the team reacted, knocking the officer to the ground and pinning his arms and legs behind him. Within seconds, he was immobilized and agreed to stand down.

Friday marked the first time in nearly a decade that the prison's 31-member emergency response team has hosted such a demonstration, which included a mock cell extraction, K-9 officer exercise and inmate disturbance scenario.

Close to 100 people attended the exercise as part of annual training for the United Mine Workers of America, which represents more than a half-dozen correctional facilities in the state including Blair County.

Team co-coordinator Officer Matthew Hale said at any given time, about half a dozen of these highly trained team members are on duty at the prison and can be called on when there's a threat.

And Hale- who submitted to being shot with a Taser as part of the exercise - emphasized that everyone who joins the team agrees to endure being hit with a stun gun and exposure to chemicals like pepper spray so they understand the weapons they're using and the pain they can inflict.

"Each one of these guys are volunteers," Hale said. "They risk themselves in order to be in a better position to manage conflicts inside the prison."

Hale yelled through gritted teeth and two other officers held his arms as a third shot two 2-inch claw-like probes into Hale's back, delivering 20,000 volts of electricity and .004 amps through his body.

Hale's fellow team coordinator, Officer Daniel Link, noted that once a prisoner endures a stun gun, often the threat of a second is enough to make them surrender without force being used.

Link said he's participated in several defense, munitions and chemical training sessions through the Department of Corrections that he's been able to take back to the Cambria County Prison and share with fellow officers.

"It is an invaluable asset to us," Link said.

Prison Warden John Prebish Jr. said the team has been in place since 1991 and its members receive training to ensure that procedures are carried out in a uniform and safe way.

Displayed at the demonstration included pepperball guns and electrified shields, as well as several handguns and shotguns.

Officials said while they aim to avoid using lethal force, it's not always possible.

Hale referenced a 2006 hostage situation, during which Torone Dixon, 25, of Philadelphia took a guard hostage with a self-made knife. Dixon was facing murder charges for killing another man earlier that year near Blandburg over drugs.

After negotiations failed, the team was called in to rescue the officer, whose jaw was broken in the attack. Rounds of bean bag bullets and pepper balls failed to stop Dixon, so officers shot and killed him.

Hale said the shooting does not make officers proud, but concerned.

Both officers and inmates need to be protected, Hale said, and he and his team members are trained to respond to the most serious scenarios.

"Probably the worst of the worst has happened here. And we've handled it," Hale said. "People don't always listen, and that's why we are here."

Prison Warden John Prebish Jr. said the team has been in place since 1991 and has proved invaluable in protecting both officers and inmates.

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