Stephen McDaniel's life behind bars

Telegraph staffAugust 14, 2011 

Forty-five mornings ago in the pre-dawn hours of July 1, Stephen McDaniel went from living in a 650-square-foot, two-bedroom study pad at the edge of Mercer University’s law-school campus to bedding down in a roughly 10-by-10-foot cell at the Bibb County jail.

He went from studying for the Georgia bar exam to being a burglary suspect housed behind bars.

A month later on the second night of August, still confined in a light-colored cell, McDaniel would be charged with murder.

By then, the rhythms of the county lockup had no doubt begun taking hold -- the 84-cent breakfasts, lunches and dinners the only things to break the monotony of no TV, no windows and little reading material other than the Bible.

The three-decade-old jail, a brick-walled bookend to downtown’s south side, takes up a town-square-size chunk of land between Oglethorpe and Hawthorne streets. When it was built as part of the county’s law enforcement center that was dedicated in 1980, First Street, had it not been permanently re-routed, would have just about dead-ended at the old booking-room door.

Last week, it was home to more than 900 inmates.

McDaniel, 25, accused in the late-June slaying and dismemberment of his 27-year-old neighbor and law-school classmate Lauren Giddings, is inmate No. 145875.

The two had lived next door to one another, sharing an outdoor stairway and awning-shaded front balcony that looked out on a canopy of Bradford pear trees. The trees stand between their apartments and a driveway into the Walter F. George School of Law at the top of downtown Macon.

McDaniel now lives isolated from other prisoners in the jail’s infirmary, a pod of a dozen cells where guards stationed in the middle can, as Sheriff Jerry Modena puts it, look left, look right, look dead ahead and see everything.”

“We’re making sure they don’t go off on us in there and commit suicide,” Modena said of the infirmary inmates the other day.

Inmates like McDaniel -- Modena called him “a high-profile” -- often take up residence in the infirmary, where ill prisoners also reside. There, the sheriff said, they can be “extra-watched because they are so vulnerable or because they are mean as the devil.”

Instead of bars, the 12 cells have reinforced-glass doors with a horizontal steel support across the middle.

Though other parts of the jail have televisions, there are none in the infirmary, where cells consist of stainless-steel toilet-sink combinations and hospital-style beds.

Jailers say McDaniel sleeps a lot. He is given daily mental-welfare and physical-health checks.

For breakfast, he is served scrambled eggs, oatmeal, grits, biscuits and fruit. Other menu items include burgers, fish, tacos, stewed beef, chicken fried steak and pizza.

Modena prefers the baked chicken and rice.

McDaniel, however, may still be getting used to the grub.

“He has not been eating much since the murder charge,” his mother, Glenda, said recently.

McDaniel, who enrolled in Mercer’s law school in 2008 for what would be a near-three-year stay, stands a chance of spending even longer in the Bibb lockup awaiting trial. He will almost surely mark his 26th birthday there next month.

Should prosecutors seek the death penalty -- and there has been no suggestion either way -- McDaniel’s time at 668 Oglethorpe St. could, as three current cases with death-penalty implications have, exceed even five years.

His family is allowed to see him in his new surroundings for half an hour once a week, his mother says. The visits are through thick-glass windows. Conversations take place on phones set up on either side of the glass.

Glenda McDaniel said her son told her “all of the deputies have been very nice.”

Still, she has seen him cry.

She has also seen him smile, barely, on a visit last weekend.

Those who go to see inmates from the free world go up a concrete staircase, 22 steps in all, from the sidewalk along Hawthorne Street. From the top of the steps, if you look south maybe 200 yards down what is left of First Street’s bottom end, you can see the steeple and sanctuary of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

Five rules for those visiting inmates are posted on a sign at the door that reads, “The Following Can Not Be Worn During Visitation.”

Among the rules: no sleeveless shirts or dresses and no Spandex.

Rule No. 3 declares there shall be no “clothing showing mid section or cleavage.”

Last Sunday, McDaniel’s mother and father, along with the four children they adopted from Stephen’s sister, Elisa, paid him a visit.

The kids made up a joke to cheer him up.

One of the children said the family dog was “like a member of the family.”

Another child, an 8-year-old, taking the line literally, said, “Which member is he like?”

“That was the punch line,” Glenda said.

And pretty soon, the visit was over.

Back outside, on what amounts to the jail’s back porch, at the top of the steps that climb up from the sidewalk, the free world comes back into view.

If you gaze left or right, up or down Hawthorne Street, the landscape bears some similarity to the sidewalk scene outside the Georgia Avenue apartments McDaniel lived in while he went to law school.

The edge of the jail yard is lined by Bradford pear trees.

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