Peace Inside The Gate

As soon as you show up to work and go through the gate, you have to be on.

Photograph by Tegra Stone Nuess

MATTHEW ZELLER, 51, has worked for the Oregon Department of Corrections for 23 years as an officer, lieutenant, and now sergeant at the Santiam minimum security facility in Salem. In 2013, after 19 years of accumulating job-induced stress, Zeller felt “broken” and desperate to quit. When he learned of a DOC-sponsored class on mindfulness, he overcame his initial skepticism and enrolled. Now, Zeller, who describes himself as being “on a road to recovery,” periodically teaches and cofacilitates mindfulness classes for his coworkers.

Tell me about the challenges of your job.

As soon as you show up to work and go through the gate, you have to be on. You’ve got to watch everything around you, because you never know what’s going to happen. You’re dealing with inmates who are fighting or injured in an accident. You’ve got verbal aggression and contraband. I never relax inside the facility. Even when I’m off work, it’s hard: My wife knows that I can’t sit in a restaurant without being able to see the door and everybody in the room.

That’s a lot of stress.

I used to go home, and I was so tired. My chair and the TV were it. I didn’t want to leave the house. I dreaded getting up the next day and going to work, because I knew what I would feel like when I came home. What started out as “leave me alone for a half hour” turned into totally shutting out my family and my friends.

What was the turning point?

I’d get up every morning to come to work and leave 15 minutes earlier than normal, because I’d have to stop and throw up before I got to work. The stress level had gotten to me. I didn’t want to live this life anymore, and I didn’t know how to change that.

The mindfulness class was the way out?

I believe it saved my career, my marriage, and my family. I started using breathing techniques when I got home from work, and they helped me relax. I started to re-engage with my family: My daughter has a swim meet, my son has a baseball game—now, I’m going to these things. I’m able to control my emotions and be a part of society again.

What is your meditation routine?

I have a room in my house where I have bells and a little waterfall. When I get home, I’ll take 10 to 30 minutes to relax. I use an app on my phone—Insight Timer—for breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, meditation.

What role does mindfulness play at work?

There isn’t a lot of time during the day—it’s constant go, go, go—but if I can I try to take a few minutes here and there to do a quick breathing exercise or body scan or even just stop and think, “What are you doing right now? You need to take care of yourself.”

I pay more attention—to myself and to other people. If I see an inmate or staff member in crisis, I’ll stop and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re not quite yourself today. What’s going on?’

What about your interactions with inmates?

I had an incident with an inmate who wasn’t complying with another officer and was getting violent. The staff member called for responders. When I showed up, I knew I could handle the issue physically, but I stopped for a second and thought, “How can I handle this without being physical?” I knew my tone of voice had to be different, not elevated. In the past, I’d be screaming orders: “Stop! Stop what you’re doing!” Instead, I tried to talk calmly with the inmate. Within seconds I was able to get the inmate to de-escalate. One of the staff members—he has known me for a long time—said, “Wow! Where’d you come up with that?”

That’s quite a shift in self-awareness.

I pay more attention—to myself and to other people. If I see an inmate or staff member in crisis, I’ll stop and say, “Hey, I see you’re not quite yourself today. What’s going on?” Back in the day, with an inmate, I would have thought, “Yeah, I don’t want to have that conversation—it might escalate, and the person might act out. So, let’s leave it alone.” I was afraid of the outcome. But I’ve learned that if you engage and deal with the small stuff, you don’t have to deal with the big stuff as often.

What about plans to retire?

I can retire in two to three years, but I don’t know if I will. I do want to do something different, but now, I’d have no problem staying until I hit the 30-year mark. Four years ago, I didn’t want to go another day.

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