I had already been working as a prison guard for five years at a high-security prison in Kassel, Germany, when I was confined to a wheelchair for life because of a rare autoimmune disease. When I called the prison director just before the end of my physical rehabilitation therapy, I expected to hear two words: early retirement. They were never said, and I was back at work a month later.
I started with administrative tasks and then slowly moved back to working with the prisoners. The prison couldn’t hire anyone else to compensate for my limited working hours, so my colleagues put in extra shifts to make sure I could keep my job.
As Kassel prisoners mostly serve long terms for offences such as rape, murder and terrorism, most of the inmates already knew me from before. Contrary to my worries, they reacted to my disability with reservation and even fear. The closest I got to a confrontation with a prisoner was when I was rolling through the deserted old wing by myself one day, and an inmate appeared out of nowhere and blocked the way. “What would you do if I took you hostage right now?” he asked. Adrenaline shot through my body, as my mouth spurted out words. “I doubt I’d be a good hostage,” I replied. “Firstly, I wouldn’t shield your chest, so you’d be an easy target for the snipers on the towers. Secondly, you’d have to push the wheelchair with one hand and hold your weapon with the other — we’d go around in circles like a spinning top. And, thirdly, if I toppled over, you definitely wouldn’t be able to carry me.” He went pretty quiet after that.
For technical reasons, I don’t do some day-to-day ward services, such as checking on inmates in their cells, because some of the corridors are too narrow for my wheelchair. But I supervise when the prisoners work at our in-prison factory facilities and in the bakery, which is right next to my office. If they get permission, prisoners can come straight in and ask me about work-related issues. My role includes setting wages and deciding on disciplinary action if prisoners don’t stick to the rules.
My paralysis started in 2004, when I was in goal at an amateur football club. I suddenly stopped feeling my legs for a moment and stumbled over. I didn’t make much of it and put the incident down to lack of sleep — the night shifts got to me sometimes. But it happened again at work a month later and then my symptoms got worse and worse. In 2005, the doctors diagnosed me with a rare disease of the central nervous system. Even today, no one knows with certainty what caused the nerve infection but it was most likely a contaminated needle used when I was vaccinated.
At that moment, it all seemed very evident to me: I would lose my job; I wouldn’t be able to pay back my debts; my wife would leave me; my family would fall apart. On November 21 2005, I slowly rolled my wheelchair on to the balcony of my hospital room, hauled myself over the railing with my arms, and let go. However, the hospital psychiatrists had noticed my suicidal tendencies weeks before and had moved me to a room with a safety net beneath the balcony. It was my family’s unconditional support that helped me pull myself out of this hopeless phase in my life.
The prisoners respect me even more because of my sporting success. I took up cycling with a hand-powered bike to be able to go cycling with my sons and, in 2008, I started training professionally. About three years later, I moved on to paratriathlon and have won the German championships nine times over different distances. I’ve come second in the European championships and I’m training for next year’s Paralympics in Rio.
One of the prisoners once said: “We’re both on national television, mate — you’re in the sports news, and I’m on Crimewatch.”