Definition of penitentiary in English:



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

    • ‘Transportation to Australia or incarceration in one of the new penitentiary prisons became the standard punishment for serious, non-homicidal offenders.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘In Kingston, we check out the museum at the penitentiary, where convicts have been housed for well over 100 years.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Women are the fastest-growing segment of the population in federal penitentiaries and state prisons.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Rehabilitation for the youthful is unlikely if imprisonment is served in a penitentiary rather than a reformatory.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Since then, I have been doing this work with 96 state prisons and federal penitentiaries across the United States.’
    • ‘Instead she probes the reality of life inside the penitentiary's walls, examining convicts' responses to incarceration and the construction of an inmate subculture.’
    • ‘Although the almshouse did not eliminate poverty any more than the penitentiary did crime, 1820s Baltimore attested to the optimism of a dynamic age.’
    • ‘Jones had been convicted in 1972 of fatally stabbing another inmate while doing time at a federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Va.’
    • ‘He was one of the 11 other convicts at the penitentiary who were so treated.’
    • ‘According to the report, 2.1 million Americans spent 2002 in local jails, state and federal penitentiaries and juvenile detention facilities.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘14 Federal inmates were held at state and local prison facilities until the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, was established in 1895.’
    prison, penal institution, place of detention, lock-up, place of confinement, guardhouse, correctional facility, detention centre
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  • 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.