Jan was in jail. And it was life-threatening. For a year, the HIV patient had been deprived of the treatment he needed. Now he wants to call those responsible to account.

The phrase "a career in jail" isn't usually meant as a compliment. But with Jan*, it has its own significance. The 39-year-old used his four years and five months in prison to study law. "That's how I got through the time," he says in the broad accent of Thuringia, Germany. "I would have gone mad if I'd just lain in bed 23 hours a day." And there's another reason why Jan took to studying: he felt like he was being cheated out of his health.

Jan is HIV-positive, and he's known it since 2001. Luckily his health is robust, and when he began his sentence in March 2009, he wasn't on any medication and felt okay.


That all changed when he was moved to another jail in November 2011, where the new doctor raised the alarm: the laboratory found only 108 T helper cells per microlitre in his blood. According to German Aids Society guidelines, doctors are advised to begin HIV treatment at anything below 350 T helper cells. If the level goes below 200, the patient is at risk of life-threatening pneumonia, fungal infections, and other serious illnesses. "It was like he threw his hands up in horror," remembers Jan. "It was a hammer-blow, like being diagnosed with HIV all over again."

But Jan only learned the whole truth about the state of his health gradually, when he saw earlier lab results. For over a year, he says, his blood had been at only slightly above 200 T helper cells. Once, the lab even included a note: "Begin HIV treatment urgently." And yet, reports Jan, for at least a year he was not given Germany's standard medical treatment for HIV. "They make an idiot of you by saying: 'everything's fine, don't worry.' And then that." Was it malice? Jan thinks it was probably just incompetence. "None of the three prison doctors had the faintest idea about HIV."

But Jan was entirely dependent on those doctors - in prison you have no freedom to choose your medical care. In certain cases, an HIV patient can be referred to a specialist, but that question never arose. "Since I was never ill, I never felt I had to fight with the doctor over it," he says. His bitter suspicion is that those responsible never wanted to look into it too closely. HIV treatment is expensive, and the prison always has to carry the costs.

Rewind: at the end of the 1990s, things were going well for Jan. The small, stocky banker founded a successful real estate firm: twelve employees, offices in multiple cities, business booming. Jan tried to keep appearances up for a long time after the collapse of the Holzmann construction firm had driven his own company to ruin. He was sent to prison for failing to file for insolvency in time, misappropriating social security contributions, and credit card fraud. "You have to face up to it when you violate social standards," he says today. "But did that mean I had to have my health destroyed?"


Jan has been a free man since August 2013 - and now he wants to sue those responsible for compensation. Sitting in a café explaining his legal strategy, he bangs the table so hard the water spills from his glass. Then he says quietly, "My right to health care was trampled on." 

He cannot forget the treatment he was deprived of. What were the consequences? "I don't even want to think about it. It'll just break me," he says, fiddling with a roll-up which he smokes up to the last millimetre. Now a qualified lawyer, he wants to work to help Aids sufferers or those in prison. "For me, that's the best way to deal with it," he explains. "I want to find a way to use my experiences and my knowledge. This shouldn't happen to any more inmates - at least not as many as today."

Philip Eicker

*Name changed

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