Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Imaging of the skull and brain
Photo by Nur Ceren Demir on iStock

One morning, on the way to the chow hall, I spotted a strange white plastic dome bobbing up and down on a guy’s head. It was easy to spot, even though he was far in front of me in the breakfast line. I heard murmurs as others also took notice.

I first thought it was a hockey helmet, and that maybe we had an ice rink I didn’t know about. After all, San Quentin State Prison offers its residents more programs than other joints. But the truth of the helmet turned out to be much more complicated than I originally thought, and it illuminated a common problem in prisons across the United States.

Days later, that same helmet came up in line behind me. I had been referring to the helmet’s owner as “Crash” because his helmet reminded me of the ones crash test dummies wear. I introduced myself to Crash, and he told me that his real name was Jon Spencer. We got our food trays, sat down together, and Spencer told me his story.

Spencer, 29, said he was incarcerated at Riverside County Jail in Southern California almost seven years ago, awaiting trial. One night he was drawing a picture while sitting on his upper bunk in a 74-bed dorm. He blacked out and fell 4 feet off his bed to the floor. On the way down, his shoulder hit the edge of the bottom bunk. He leaned against the wall for several minutes before he regained consciousness. He was told he had been convulsing in seizures during his blackout while other inmates yelled “man down” and alerted jailers.

When staff responded, they made sure he hadn’t swallowed his tongue. Then they rushed him to a hospital, which kept him for three days of observation. X-rays revealed he had a tumor in his head.

Spencer said the hospital released him back to jail. In total, Spencer would have to wait more than a year for an operation to remove the tumor, in 2017. During that time, Spencer said the tumor kept growing. It peaked at 2 centimeters, about the size of a peanut.

No one told Spencer about the hole in his head until after his postoperative transfer back to prison. All he had was a bandage on his head until he went to Wasco State Prison, he said. There, a doctor, during an intake exam, pushed on the hole in his head and caused him to black out.

He awoke to find the doctor had pulled up his shirt and was probing his stomach area. Spencer yelled at the doctor, “What are you doing?”

The doctor shouted back, “I’m looking for your skull!”

The doctor explained that Spencer was missing a piece of his skull where the tumor had been removed, leaving a “hole” in his head. He would need an operation to put a plate over the hole.

The doctor told Spencer it was common during cranial operations to graft skull pieces to the stomach, which offers good storage with its warm, sterile environment and circulating blood supply. But in Spencer’s case, surgeons forgot to reattach the pieces of his skull. This doctor was poking around for the piece of missing skull but didn’t find it.

Wasco State Prison gave Spencer a soft leather helmet to protect the hole. Later, in his next prison, California State Prison, Corcoran, the medical department exchanged it for the hard plastic one he now wears.

Prison medical staff have told Spencer the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will not send him to a medical facility for his needed plate operation. It seems that since his injury was preexisting from his fall in the county jail, it is the responsibility of Riverside County to fix the issue. A spokesperson for CDCR declined to comment, citing state and federal privacy laws.

Spencer has been waiting close to seven years for a skull plate. It seems his only option in prison is to wear the helmet. He now wears it when sleeping; it’s a 24/7 issue.

Spencer said it’s unlikely the state will pay to fix his skull at this point. He said he is seeking legal action — or else he will have to pay for surgery himself.

Spencer is upset about his skull, but he also is a strong person who keeps a positive outlook on life. He seems to have adapted to his new helmet lifestyle.

Before his fall, Spencer was an active artist, but his drawing ability was affected by the accident. He has spent many hours trying to bring his talent back to where it was before. It’s not there yet, but he’s improving with practice.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Randy Hansen is a writer and a member of San Quentin News’ Journalism Guild. He is a business owner incarcerated in California.