Dead Man Walking

Story and Photos by Will Stewart

When the bars at Holman Correctional Facility closed behind Grady Bankhead in 1986, they closed on the self-described “angriest man in the world”, a man facing death for capital murder, and still nursing wounds from a tumultuous childhood.A flag flies over the barbed wire fences

Now, in 2011, Bankhead resides at William E. Donaldson correctional facility, where he runs inmate therapy groups and regularly teaches sessions on Buddhist Vipassana meditational practices. He is excited about life, and thankful for the opportunity to divert others from the paths he was on.

Bankhead was born in Mobile during a trip his mother made from Texas to visit her parents. His birth forced her to stay in Mobile indefinitely.

“I don’t think she ever forgave me for that,” he said, chuckling.

He has good reason to think so. When he was three, his mother disappeared, leaving him and a younger brother in a barn to die. After he was found, Bankhead lived in a home for abused children until his grandmother reclaimed custody. He finished elementary school in Mobile before moving to Sacramento with his grandmother.

Then, during his junior year of high school, Grady’s girlfriend became pregnant.

“I thought that was what you was supposed to do, was get married,” Bankhead said.

The marriage didn’t last long, and soon Bankhead found himself running with a rough crowd. In 1975, during his second marriage, he was arrested for using a stolen credit card and sentenced to four years in prison.

Despite staying out for eight years, he still followed many of the paths that led him to prison in the first place. He burned through another marriage, and continued to surround himself with people who were just as self-destructive as he was.

“I had a lot of abandonment issues, and instead of working through the issues I just tried to put the band-aids over the problem and I kept trying to find people to pull to me,” Bankhead said. “It didn’t have to be necessarily, a woman as a wife, it was friend. Everybody to me was like ‘ok yeah now you’re my family.’”

Grady Bankhead

Everything came to a head on a stormy night in 1986. Grady met with three men to go fishing on some family property, but when fishing got rained out, the four headed to a bar. He knew only one of the men, and just for two weeks, but when the men ran out of money and decided to go rob a man they knew, Bankhead went right along.

The group traveled to Jack McGraw’s house, planning to take a television and sell it for cash, which McGraw would then collect insurance on. Soon, however, a drunken argument broke out between him and two of the men, which ended when they assaulted McGraw with a knife.

When all was said and done, they had stabbed him 59 times in the back, three times in the face, and his throat had been slit 16 times.

The men drove back to Bankhead’s house where he provided them with a change of clothes while he burned their bloody garments in the backyard.

Despite the fact that Bankhead never touched the victim, he received the sentence of death for capital murder. The judge ruled that he was equally responsible for McGraw’s death because he holds a black belt in two different martial arts but did not lift a finger for the defenseless McGraw. But Bankhead doesn’t hold a grudge for his harsh sentence.

“I definitely did wrong,” he said, “I turned into a coward that day, I thought I was going to be left laying there to die too. At the time I made another poor decision and now, here I am.”

During his time on death row, Bankhead took his first step toward changing his life by getting a college degree. Despite graduating high school in Sacramento, he never attended college, and when Holman began offering weekly classes to the regular population inmates, the men on death row asked for the same opportunity. Three years later, at the age of 37, Grady Bankhead earned his Associate of Arts degree.

In addition to getting his college degree, Bankhead also took up painting, which might be what saved his life in the end. His appeal lawyer dropped his appeal in order to work on a personal case, and Grady’s execution was imminent. He moved into the “death cell”, a small room next to the electric chair, where a death row prisoner lives in the two weeks before his execution.

Then, only two days before he was due to die, a new attorney picked up his appeal, and succeeded in commuting his sentence to life without parole. The deciding factor? During the appeal, Bankhead’s wife revealed to the judge that he sold his paintings from within the prison and donated the money to a home for abused children, rather than spending it financing his appeals.

Bankhead's Serial Number
Bankhead’s prison issued serial number

“The judge told me ‘I’m not going to put you back on death row, I’m going to give you life without [parole] because I believe you can still help people from behind bars.’” Bankhead recalled, “And I thought ok, I’ll show you, I’ll help everyone I can find.”

Bankhead decided that before he could help change someone else’s life, he had to overhaul his. He began to take various courses the prison offered and happened upon an experimental class in Vipassana meditation therapy, a non-religious practice of introspection. Grady enrolled and became part of a documentary called The Dhamma Brothers, which followed four violent inmates as they learned this alternative, peace-based lifestyle.

The course changed Grady Bankhead’s life completely.

“It saved my life, and I don’t mean keeping me out of the dirt, I’m talking about it saved my living, how to live.” Bankhead said. “I was walking around dead already inside. I’m not anymore. I love life, I feel great about it.”

That much is clear within the first seconds of speaking with him. His voice carries a warm and charismatic energy, full of drive, his passion overflowing. When you listen to him it is almost impossible to connect him with the man who stood idly by as a defenseless man was savagely murdered. His sense of humor, powerful and ever-present, more closely resembles the attitude of a free man than one condemned to spend his life in prison.

But it isn’t just Bankhead’s attitude towards life and others that demonstrates his change; it is reflected almost more so in his actions. When the judge told Bankhead that he thought Bankhead could help people, he had no idea how right he was.

Bankhead is on the warden’s advisory committee at William E. Donaldson. He works in the head psychologist’s office teaching Reality Therapy and Houses of Healing to over 50 inmates each week. He facilitates 3 group meditations each week with the other “Dhamma brothers” and has worked with 12 more Vipassana courses for inmates. In the late 90’s he helped start an alcohol and drug recovery program that is still going strong. He also coaches a softball team and plays softball and basketball.

“I have a full day,” he said, chuckling when asked how he juggles it all.

A warning at the prison fence
A warning outside of William E. Donaldson’s fences.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Most prisoners long for the day when they will be released back into society, but after 25 years in the system, Bankhead has come to terms with the fact that he will likely die behind bars for a life that he has disavowed. But rather than dwell on how unfortunate he is, Bankhead took it upon himself to be a factor of change in the lives of young men who might someday get a chance at freedom. And for Grady Bankhead, helping others first is the most important thing in the world.

“The only thing that has to do with me now is how I get up in the morning and what I do to create something [I can] achieve that day and who I can help,” Bankhead said, “[The reason] I started taking courses and finding work to do that would help me change was to be that better person that I wanted others to become.”

To learn more about Grady Bankhead and his involvement with Vipassana Meditation visit his website, which also contains information about his ongoing legal battle in an attempt for parole.