An Empty Prison

📅 Published on July 11, 2020

“An Empty Prison”

Written by Matt Dymerski
Edited by N/A
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 8.00/10. From 10 votes.
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A single day added onto my sentence meant the difference between a normal jail and the unending nightmare of Pembina Prison. I was supposed to get 364 days. That was the deal. But the judge didn’t like my ‘attitude,’ whatever the hell that meant, so he made it 365. Boom. One year was the minimum for prison. My lawyer made a stink and a half, but it didn’t do any good. It’s not his fault. In fact, he’s the one who is going to release this statement to the press, or leak it online if the Guardian Corrections Group (GCG) tries to get an injunction on us. People have to know what happened at Pembina Prison.

I’m going to put it right out there and tell you that it was haunted. You think I’m joking, nuts, or lying, but you have no idea. Haunted prisons aren’t anything like you imagine. Those places that advertise themselves and give people tours are sick jokes compared to the real thing. It got so bad that you can actually look up GCG’s official filings for Chapter 11. That shit put them out of business on their very first prison, and right there on the briefs, using an early statute of North Dakota law from 1857 to file an insurance claim, it says: ‘Site of Pembina Prison confirmed by Governor’s Office and two Notary Publics witnessing in person to be afflicted by the supernatural such that continued business is impossible.’ It wasn’t the first time the Prison was closed for that reason, either, but leeches kept buying it and reopening it hoping to make a buck off the common man.

And I was shoved into that hellhole without knowing the history even a single bit.

Don’t get me wrong. The building itself wasn’t so bad, especially for something straight out of 1853. It was a big stone cube that was squat, heavy, and cramped, but way less sealed off than modern prisons. We could see a lot of the cells around us, there was only one main hallway per floor, and we were close enough to pass things between the bars and have some real human interaction. It could have been worse.

There were five floors and capacity for five hundred prisoners. When I first got there, I had a bunch of cellmates, and I heard there were two thousand guys locked up, and I believed it—but that soon changed.

I didn’t talk to anyone for the first three weeks. I’d never been to real prison before, and I was messed up over it. I didn’t want to accept that I would be in that place and stuck with three other guys in my cell for an entire year. The whole prison seemed full of feral men; the bottom floor would start screaming and hollering and panicking in the middle of the night all at once. We were on the top floor, but we could hear their screams echoing through that open old layout like they were right there with us. I just thought the prisoners on the bottom floor were all nuts until the guards weren’t there to wake us up the first day of my fourth week.

When I woke up in my corner without some asshole guard banging on the bars of our cell, I finally had to talk. I asked one of my cellmates, Donte, what was going on, and I’ll never forget the fear in his voice as he said something that should have made us all incredibly happy: “The guards are all gone, man.”

The prisoners were talking quietly between the cells and loudly between the floors through various whispers and shouts, but the most we could figure out was that something on the first floor had made them all quit in protest. Sure, must have been the crazies screaming like that during the night, right? Except none of us could get any word from the bottom floor. It was dead silent down there. The guys on the second called out for hours; someone was down there, they said, because they could hear shuffling footsteps walking around at random every so often, but whoever it was never said a single word.

That was the first time Donte mentioned the crazy stories from the first floor. He muttered that he hoped none of that was true, but when I asked about it, he just shook his head. “Nothin’, man. None of it ever made sense.”

We were a little worried as the day wore on and nobody came to let us out for breakfast—and then nobody came to let us out for lunch. The time we usually got to spend outside in the yard came and went, and people began getting restless. In the cell to our left, Donte’s friend Will began telling guys to pass the word that we should all calm down and start sharing any food we had holed away.

I remember asking Donte, “Is it really that bad?”

“They’ve denied meals and yard time for a day or two before,” he told me.

But the other two guys in our cell didn’t look convinced. One of them said, “But not like this. They made damn sure we knew what we did. They never just up and left.”

Someone handed us pieces of crusty old bread through the bars. It was much appreciated. The new guards didn’t show up for work for another full day.

We got plenty of yard time that day from these new guys, but they seemed more confused than us. We all watched from a distance as Will asked a guard about what happened.

The guard shrugged. “I dunno. GCG was paying a premium for fast hires, so I signed up.”

“What about the prisoners on the first floor?” Will asked. “We could still hear ‘em shuffling around down there. We looked on the way out to the yard, but we couldn’t see anyone.”

“Huh?” The guard frowned. “Nobody in there. They all got transferred.”

Transferred? The hell’s that mean?”

“It means DOCR took ‘em back. Returned to state custody since the company couldn’t handle them.”

That made sense. If the floor had been full of nutjobs, then North Dakota’s first local private prison company hardly had the experience to handle them.

But these new guys didn’t even have the skills to handle us. There were half as many guards as before and they didn’t know the routines or who the dangerous ones were among us. As a result, they were distant, scared, and forceful. All except one guy. Kellen.

Kellen wasn’t the first guard to treat us like human beings, but by then he was the only one around. He traded jokes while in the yard, never hit us, and looked us in the eyes when he talked. He went and found some paperwork to confirm the crazies had actually been transferred, but it took three months to get that info out of GCG. By the time he told us he’d heard back, we’d sort of forgotten the whole thing.

Two nights later, maybe two hours past lights out, the guys on the second floor began screaming.

Donte leapt up and fell on one of our cellmates by accident before shouting, “Shit, shit! Must be a fire!”

Other guys in our row began banging on the bars and shouting for the guards, but the uniforms charged past and headed downstairs without talking to us. We could hear them shouting orders down below—and then yelling in confusion. The prisoners’ screams were clearer coming from the second, and it sounded like they were terrified of something in particular and wanted help. The sounds of gates being slammed and people running reached us after about ten minutes of shouting, and then it was silent.

We sat in the dark waiting and listening until morning.

When the new shift came in, they were surprised and confused, and Kellen came by to ask what had happened. We told him what we knew, but he’d shown up and found open gates and an empty second floor. There was no indication what had happened, but he promised to check with corporate and figure out if the absent prisoners had all been rapidly transferred again.

Donte gripped the bars and made sure Kellen was looking at him. “Please find out who the hell is walking around down there at night.”

Kellen blinked at that. “I mean, I’m day shift, so I don’t know what I can do, but what do you mean?”

“The prisoners are gone,” Donte told him fiercely but quietly. “But the guys on the third floor said they still hear someone, maybe two or three someones, shufflin’ their feet every hour or so ‘til morning.”

“I guess I could go look right now.”

Donte reached through the bars and grabbed his uniform, something which usually got us a beating. “Hear me. Do not go in there by yourself. Stay in the stairwell unless someone’s with you.”

Kellen nodded fearfully. It looked like he finally understood how spooked we were. He waved another guard off, and Donte let go.

But nothing more came of it for a whole season. The night shift had quit, and more guards got hired at an even higher pay. Kellen and another uniform scoped out the first two floors, but found nothing. Donte thought it was because they were looking during the day, but he wasn’t about to ask our only friend to risk himself. It was maybe three months later—yeah, I was halfway through my sentence, and I had taken up drawing so I had a pen and paper—when we woke up in the middle of the night to everyone on the third floor screaming in absolute panic.

This time we were less scared during the event itself. Will offered a guard racing past five hundred bucks from his commissary account if the man would come back and tell them what was going on. Donte listened intently, trying to hear individual screams from the third floor over everyone else’s shouting and confusion. I wrote down any words he thought he heard.

What I wrote down:

Jesus Christ

killing him


let us out

coming this way

We weren’t as scared when it was happening because we’d lived through it twice before, but, this time, the long-term fear was much deeper. Now we knew for sure that it was going to happen again, and any prisoners that had the means began lawyering up and doing everything they could to transfer to other prisons, even if it meant worse conditions. The problem was, the North Dakota prison system was already overflowing, which was the whole reason GCG got started in the first place, so every guy that got out meant it was that much harder for the rest of us. Both of our cellmates transferred, giving us more space, so that was nice, but it was small consolation.

Apparently, word had started to spread on the outside, and GCG’s solution—instead of paying the guards even more—was to stop having a night shift at all except for just one poor guy. Kellen was a bit miffed he hadn’t gotten a raise out of the whole thing, but he was starting to believe us that something was going on. By then, he’d been around awhile, and he knew we weren’t bullshitters.

And too many other prisoners had told him they’d heard someone walking around the first, second, and third floors at random during the night. It was just a few steps, sometimes as many as twenty, but it only happened every so often and only once it had been long enough that you thought it had stopped for good. One guy on the fourth floor said he’d heard a full run from one end of the third floor hallway to the other, clear enough that he’d expected a guard to come charging up the stairwell, but nobody had appeared. He slit his wrists and got transferred out on medical leave the next day, so we took him serious.

All that was enough to get Kellen to start doing some research on the outside. He came to us in the seventh month of my sentence with a pale face.

Beside us at the bars, Will asked, “What’s the word?”

Kellen seemed grim. “Lotta bullshit out there, but this place is mentioned a lot. It’s been closed before, but I keep getting stonewalled when I ask for the historical documents. Thing is, I don’t think the prison itself is the problem. Get this.” He pulled out a notepad for reference. “Two Canadian priests, Fathers Norbert Provencher and Severe Dumoulin, visited Pembina in 1818, before it was even an official township. That was back when The Hudson’s Bay Company was big around these parts. That’s how long ago it was. Pembina was the biggest town in North Dakota then, so the trading post was full, so the priests chose to sleep outside by where the Pembina River meets the Red River. The folk tale has it that a vision of a rotting woman came in the night and stole Provencher’s life; the two men bartered with her to split the remaining life between them, consigning both to live only 35 more years instead of the 70 Severe had left. Severe got an extra month and twenty days as a gift from his friend for his sacrifice.” He paused, as if we might guess the obvious outcome. “They both died thirty-five years later.”

I knew Pembina Prison had a horrible problem, but that didn’t mean I had to believe everything. “Let me guess, a month and twenty days apart?”

Kellen nodded.

Donte snorted.

“It’s true, dude,” Kellen insisted. “The dates of death are right there on Wikipedia. But get this. Thirty-five years after 1818 made their death year 1853, the year this prison was built. And the place they camped that night? By the meeting of the rivers?”

I didn’t know what it meant, but I was beginning to feel very uneasy. “It’s right here, isn’t it?”

He was dead serious. “I think there’s some shit here. Ancient shit. I asked a guy I know, he’s got Chippewa relatives over at Turtle Mountain. They know the history of the Red River better than anyone else. He said his uncle told him to never sleep at the meeting of the Red River and the Pembina River. He said something lives here, under the ground, and awakens with the changing of the seasons.”

We were silent for a beat after that. It was folk tale nonsense, but it was as good a theory as any. Whatever it was, it was going to come back, and it wasn’t friendly. Will talked to Kellen for another few minutes, but Donte was silent. After he was gone, I asked him, “What’s wrong?”

He sat on one of the now-unused bunks and told me, “I got another five years in here, and I got no money for a lawyer. Your sentence will be up before it reaches us, and I’ll be here alone.”

“Will it?” There was no way to be sure. “It’ll be back in two months for the fourth floor, and then three months after that for us. I could get out a week before, or a day too late. It doesn’t seem to be exact.”

He just looked at the floor. “What I mean is, I do hope you get out before it comes.”


I wasn’t sure what else to say after that, so I just sat in my corner like I always did.

It wasn’t too much after that that we heard GCG was going under. The mad rush of transfers had pissed off the state and lost the company a vital contract for a second location, and investors had pulled out or something. The number of guards was cut, then slashed, and Kellen took a pay hit to stay on as the only guy on the day shift.

“There’s only two prisoners left on the fourth floor,” he told the twenty of us remaining as the general week we expected it to happen approached. “I feel like I should stay late just to see what the hell is gonna go on down there, but the former guards I ask about it are all terrified as hell and refuse to talk. Some got violent just because I asked.”

“It’s cool,” Will told him. “You got a kid at home. Don’t be here for it.”

The twenty of us left on the fifth floor sat in our cells once night fell, praying and listening.

On Monday night, nothing happened. The two guys down below occasionally shouted up to us that everything was clear.

On Tuesday night, nothing happened. The strain was growing though, and we could sometimes hear them breathing rapidly down there. I could only imagine the adrenaline rushing through them every minute until dawn.

On Wednesday night, nothing happened.

Yet, something had changed in the air. The prison was much quieter now that two thousand men had become twenty-two, and I thought I could feel a subtle sort of heartbeat in the air, pounding against reality like it was a thin sheet of paper.

“It’s just your imagination,” Donte whispered.

None of us were willing to speak louder than that.

On Thursday night, that heartbeat became a feeling of footsteps approaching from a great distance.

“Guys?” Will shouted from his cell. “You good down there?”

“Still here,” one responded from down below. “But I can feel it. It’s at the door. It’s knocking.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

But the man below did not respond.

Friday night. That was the night it would happen. All day, the two guys on fourth pulled and clanged on their bars, begging to be let out. Kellen was torn. After two hours of listening to that pleading, he came up with an idea—and transferred both of them up to our floor. “If nobody’s on four,” he said happily. “Then we’ll all be safe, right?”

Out loud, we agreed, but we were kidding ourselves. When the night guard showed up, he freaked, and took the two men back down. He said out loud what we were all thinking: “If nobody’s on four, then it’ll just come right to five and get us all. What the hell was Kellen thinking?”

We had to listen to hours of sobbing that evening. It was the hardest trial of my life. I wanted to call out to the night guard; I wanted to ask him to get those men out of there. But if I did, I knew whatever was coming would find all of us instead.

The moment it happened was like a cold hand on my shoulder.

“What’s going on down there?” Donte shouted.

The man who was not sobbing called back, “It’s—it’s changing!”

Will demanded, “What’s happening? Tell us!”

“It’s red!”


“It’s red!

“What’s red?” Will yelled insistently. “Goddamnit, what’s red?

We stared down the hallway at the night guard, who stood listening with fear.

The screaming began a few seconds later. This time, only one floor above, we could clearly hear their every word.

The sobbing prisoner shrieked, “There! It’s there!”

The man who’d been communicating with us began incoherently raging with fear against his bars.

Then, strangely, he stopped.

The twenty of us clung to our bars, unable to help, unable to flee. Many of us cried, but we were otherwise silent, for to yell would be to drown out the last words of the men below.

But they were eerily quiet for nearly two hours. We waited in strained silence as random footsteps traversed the fourth floor every so often. What was happening? For the first time, the victims of whatever was going on down below had chosen to be quiet instead of yelling for help. Why would that make things different?

At long last, the sobbing man broke the silence: “Oh my God, it’s coming your way!”

“Shut up! It’ll see you! Distract it. Hit your bars!”

The sound of clanging echoed up the stairwell.

The sobbing man said with terror: “It knows. It knows!”

“Jesus Christ, do something!”

We were no longer silent. We echoed that sentiment, loudly and repeatedly to the guard. Do something! He just stood there, literally quaking in his boots.

Will screamed at him: “Snap out of it! The other guards and prisoners got away, you can too! Whatever it is, it won’t follow you if you let them out and leave!

I shouted, “They’re gonna die down there!”

Donte threw his shoe, and the impact finally snapped the man out of his terror.

The guard ran to the stairwell and descended. The first thing we heard him say was a taken aback, “Mary, Mother of Christ.”

The sobbing man again: “Over here! For God’s sake! Let us out!”

The other prisoner wasn’t talking for some reason. We could hear his gasping terror, but that, too, went quiet.

Then we heard a buzzer, and all the gates on four slammed loudly open. The sounds of panting, running, and someone dragging something followed.

The prison went silent.

And just like that, we were alone again. The formerly crowded prison now felt terrifyingly large and empty with only twenty of us and no guards. That night, the unmistakable sound of footsteps echoed from down below. I counted time as best I could: forty minutes, then someone took three steps out of a cell and into the hallway; an hour and six minutes, someone ran ten steps along the hallway and stopped abruptly. Twenty-eight minutes, the footsteps approached the stairwell, but then turned into a cell and went silent. Thing was, whoever it was sounded barefoot—and the starting and stopping locations did not match. Where they ended was often nowhere near where they began again later.

By the time dawn came, we were scared into motionless terrified silence, and it took Kellen’s arrival for us to begin stirring again.

With GCG in bankruptcy court, we no longer had a night guard at all. If it came for us, there would be nobody to let us out of our cells like everyone else.

We hardly talked.

We hardly ate.

Each passing day was a grain of sand falling through an hourglass marking our executions.

Our fellows began confessing to crimes they hadn’t even committed just to get transferred to super-max out of state, the only option left. Well, that, and suicide attempts. One by one, Kellen escorted or dragged guys out of our floor. Twenty became fifteen, then ten.

Then it was just me and Donte, with Will still in the cell to our left. The three of us and Kellen, four men waiting for doom. We sat playing card games in the weeks leading up to it. It would be one full year for me in that place, but I could swear I’d spent a lifetime in that cell. I couldn’t think, couldn’t remember life before, couldn’t imagine surviving after. Every day, I prayed for a transfer to come in, but North Dakota had gotten sick of our shit, and the judges had stopped hearing cases from Pembina Prison.

They didn’t know there were only three of us left.

Nobody knew.

We contacted the media. We phoned the governor’s office. We made a ruckus.

That was worse than nobody knowing.

It turned out, nobody cared.

Too, there was nobody higher up at GCG following the situation, and Kellen couldn’t get anybody on the phone. Payroll—meaning, just his paycheck—was being handled by a third party disbursement company that couldn’t answer questions about ongoing proceedings.

The week approached.

On Monday night, nothing happened. We were like statues in our cells, alone, waiting for a sign of the executioner’s approach.

When dawn came, we sighed and began moving again. Donte asked, “You get out Friday?”

I nodded. If things went like before, I would be released the day of. As long as I left before sundown, I would be alright.

On Tuesday night, nothing happened.

Two for two. Just one more. Just one more day. I sat through that darkness until—no!

The feeling of the prison had changed around us. A subtle heartbeat seemed to pulse against our faces and ears and eyes.

It had come a day earlier in the week than the last time.

That morning, Will patted my arm as we both leaned out the bars. “Sorry, man.”

Donte just shook his head angrily.

I wasn’t going to get out in time.

On Wednesday night, the heartbeat became the sound of footsteps approaching from some unfathomable distance.

I think I stood at the bars of our cell that entire day, fingers wrapped around metal with force to match the tension in the air and in our minds. This couldn’t happen. This wouldn’t happen. My lawyer would walk in and tell me he’d gotten the judge’s unfair addition of an extra day removed. One day. One goddamn day! Even if I’d spent the whole year in this prison, one day still meant life or death! Let me out! Let me the hell out! For God’s sake!

But nobody cared, and nobody would listen.

I’d like to tell you that Kellen stayed late that night. I’d like to tell you that when the entire floor began to glow red—the hallway, the cells, the stone itself as whatever ungodly abomination in the earth began to wake upon the changing of the season, as distant footsteps became a traveler at the door of our minds—I’d like to tell you that Kellen was there and hit the button and opened the gates and let us all out.

I’d like to tell you that I didn’t see anything, and that I’m not permanently a broken man. I didn’t claw at the walls of my cell as it approached slowly, moving a few steps every twenty to seventy minutes. I’d like to tell you that all three of us were able to run away and escape that horror upon reality, with its rotting hands and blind eyes radiating crimson light as it searched for us at random.

But I can’t give you a satisfying end to this story. The disbursement company fired Kellen and changed the locks on the property. According to their paperwork, all the prisoners had been moved, and they thought he’d been getting paid for guarding an empty prison. They left us in there for eleven days before the error was found, which meant eleven nights with that thing. For eleven days, we starved. For eleven nights, we sat absolutely still, not daring to move or breathe or even look left or right. It knew where we were, generally; it stood right outside our cells for hours, and sometimes walked right through the bars and grasped at the beds around us, daring us to make even the slightest motion.

When you’ve spent six hours staring into the blind crimson eyes of a rotting demon, unable to blink your eyes for fear that it will hear the air your lashes move—when you’ve seen what it’s seen, the worlds it has walked reflected in hellish red, you’ll understand.

No one cares.

I’d like to tell you that Kellen actually existed. I’d like to tell you we had a friend among the guards, and that it wasn’t all bad. I’d like to tell you I wasn’t traumatized by the hell I went through being left to rot and left to die as nothing more than a number on some corporation’s books.

But no one cares.

Rating: 8.00/10. From 10 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Matt Dymerski
Edited by N/A
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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