Definition of penitentiary in English:


Syllabification: pen·i·ten·tia·ry
Pronunciation: /ˌpenəˈtenSHərē

noun (plural penitentiaries)

  • 1North American A prison for people convicted of serious crimes.
    More example sentences
    • 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.
    • 14 Federal inmates were held at state and local prison facilities until the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, was established in 1895.
    • 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.
  • 2(In the Roman Catholic Church) a priest charged with certain aspects of the administration of the sacrament of penance.
  • 2.1An 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'. Sense 1 dates from the early 19th century.

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