Definition of penitentiary in US English:



  • 1North American A prison for people convicted of serious crimes.

    • ‘In Kingston, we check out the museum at the penitentiary, where convicts have been housed for well over 100 years.’
    • ‘Transportation to Australia or incarceration in one of the new penitentiary prisons became the standard punishment for serious, non-homicidal offenders.’
    • ‘Susan, when you first pull up at the institute as they call it, the jail, the penitentiary, everything I imagine that you have been through before kind of fades away as you realize you're going to be confined behind bars.’
    • ‘Indeed, this promise gave the prisons or penitentiaries, as they were now often called, enormous legitimacy, making them the pride, not the shame, of the new republic.’
    • ‘According to the report, 2.1 million Americans spent 2002 in local jails, state and federal penitentiaries and juvenile detention facilities.’
    • ‘Women are the fastest-growing segment of the population in federal penitentiaries and state prisons.’
    • ‘Rehabilitation for the youthful is unlikely if imprisonment is served in a penitentiary rather than a reformatory.’
    • ‘Although the almshouse did not eliminate poverty any more than the penitentiary did crime, 1820s Baltimore attested to the optimism of a dynamic age.’
    • ‘The sentence of imprisonment of any person convicted of an offense shall commence to run from the date on which such person is received at the penitentiary, reformatory, or jail for service of such sentence.’
    • ‘Jones had been convicted in 1972 of fatally stabbing another inmate while doing time at a federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Va.’
    • ‘14 Federal inmates were held at state and local prison facilities until the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, was established in 1895.’
    • ‘Only about 20 of the more than 1,000 prisoners at the federal penitentiary have been convicted of crimes; many have spent years awaiting trial.’
    • ‘Since then, I have been doing this work with 96 state prisons and federal penitentiaries across the United States.’
    • ‘He was one of the 11 other convicts at the penitentiary who were so treated.’
    • ‘I sentence you on count two to two years and seven months' imprisonment in the penitentiary.’
    • ‘When she walked through the mines and penitentiaries the prisoners there often appeared surprised at her hopelessness.’
    • ‘As I was setting up to photograph in a storage building that houses the cremated remains, prisoners from the local penitentiary were called in to clean up some of the mess in the adjacent hallway, crematorium, and autopsy room.’
    • ‘In sum, I can think of no consequence, apart from a sentence of several years imprisonment in a penitentiary, which would be more significant to a responsible citizen than the loss of that citizenship.’
    • ‘Instead she probes the reality of life inside the penitentiary's walls, examining convicts' responses to incarceration and the construction of an inmate subculture.’
    • ‘If John Doe is sentenced to a term of imprisonment and later goes out of his mind, the state may continue to keep him in the penitentiary for the duration of his sentence.’
    prison, penal institution, place of detention, lock-up, place of confinement, guardhouse, correctional facility, detention centre
    View synonyms
  • 2(in the Roman Catholic Church) a priest charged with certain aspects of the administration of the sacrament of penance.

    1. 2.1 An office in the papal court forming a tribunal for deciding on questions relating to penance, dispensations, and absolution.


Late Middle English (as a term in ecclesiastical law): from medieval Latin paenitentiarius, from Latin paenitentia ‘repentance’. The North American usage dates from the early 19th century.