pen·​i·​ten·​tia·​ry | \ ˌpe-nə-ˈten(t)-sh(ə-)rē How to pronounce penitentiary (audio) \
plural penitentiaries

Definition of penitentiary

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1a : an officer in some Roman Catholic dioceses vested with power from the bishop to deal with cases of a nature normally handled only by the bishop
b capitalized : a cardinal presiding over a tribunal of the Roman curia (see curia sense 3) concerned with dispensations (see dispensation sense 2) and indulgences
2 : a public institution in which offenders against the law are confined for detention or punishment specifically : a state or federal prison in the U.S. a federal penitentiary in Virginia


pen·​i·​ten·​tia·​ry | \ ˌpe-nə-ˈten(t)-sh(ə-)rē How to pronounce penitentiary (audio) , sense 1 also -ˈten(t)-shē-ˌer-ē\

Definition of penitentiary (Entry 2 of 2)

2 : of, relating to, or incurring confinement in a penitentiary

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Synonyms for penitentiary

Synonyms: Noun

bastille, big house [slang], bridewell, brig, calaboose, can, clink [slang], cooler, coop, guardroom, hock, hold, hoosegow, jail, jailhouse, joint [slang], jug, lockup, nick [British slang], pen, pokey [slang], prison, quod [British slang], slam, slammer, stir [slang], stockade, tolbooth [Scottish]

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Examples of penitentiary in a Sentence


a sentence in the state penitentiary for robbery

Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

At a Texas penitentiary, jailed NFL veterans train their fellow inmates for a football game against the guards. Los Angeles Times, "Movies on TV this week Sept. 1 - 7, 2019: John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’ and more," 30 Aug. 2019 Mr Mirziyoyev has prohibited the use in court of evidence obtained through torture, in tacit acknowledgment that abuse is rife throughout the penitentiary system, not just at Jaslyk. The Economist, "Uzbekistan’s new president closes Jaslyk prison camp," 8 Aug. 2019 El Chapo made his first of two prison escapes from the penitentiary in 2001. Eliott C. Mclaughlin, CNN, "As druglord Joaquin Guzman got life in prison, his daughter launched her El Chapo clothing line," 17 July 2019 Five men convicted of murdering children will be executed in December and January at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., Mr. Barr said, and additional executions will be scheduled later. Katie Benner, New York Times, "U.S. to Resume Executions of Federal Inmates on Death Row," 25 July 2019 For three of those convictions, Moore was sentenced to stints in the state penitentiary. Robert Wilonsky, Dallas News, "Suspect in crash that killed former Dallas council member Carolyn Davis has long history of DWI convictions," 16 July 2019 That means a possible jail term of anything between one year plus a day to 10 years in the state penitentiary. Christopher Harress |,, "Mobile towing companies face severe penalties in fraud investigation," 17 June 2019 He was killed within 12 hours of his arrival at the Hazelton federal penitentiary in Bruceton Mills, W.Va., according to prison records obtained by NBC News. NBC News, "'Whitey' Bulger prison letters: Love for Trump, disdain for Mueller," 8 June 2019 Bulger was bludgeoned to death at the Hazelton federal penitentiary in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia on Oct. 30, 2018. Joey Garrison, USA TODAY, "'Whitey' Bulger praised Trump, bashed Mueller in letters from prison before he died last year," 30 Oct. 2018

Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective

Coleman is a sprawling complex of penitentiary units with five sections: two high-security institutions, a low and medium-security facility and a camp for female inmates. Lisa Maria Garza,, "One dead, several injured in fight at Coleman federal prison," 7 Aug. 2019 In autumn 2016 there was the first match between two penitentiary rugby teams, in Bologna. Alan Dymock, CNN, "Beyond the bars: How rugby is reforming Italian prisoners," 18 Apr. 2018 The Special Victims Division is headquartered in a gray brick building on Avenue C, where the front doors are routinely stuck halfway open and, at night, roof floodlights give the humble edifice a penitentiary glare. Kathy Dobie, Daily Intelligencer, "To Catch a Predator," 16 Mar. 2018 Lighting by Michael Boll is penitentiary bright by day and crepuscular at night. Andrea Simakis,, "Ayad Akhtar's hostage drama 'The Invisible Hand' at Cleveland Play House: There will be blood, on all sides (review)," 28 Feb. 2018 Two years ago, federal inmate No. 24434-149 walked out of a penitentiary wearing black trousers and a white button-down shirt. Martin Kuz, San Antonio Express-News, "Obama set him free. Then he landed back in prison.," 7 Jan. 2018 That’s when Haggard, then 20 and a San Quentin, Calif., penitentiary inmate, in for 15 years on a burglary charge, heard the up-and-coming Johnny Cash play his first prison concert. Lisa Legge, Twin Cities, "Famous birthdays Jan. 1; and: Johnny Cash inspires Merle Haggard, inmate," 6 Jan. 2017

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'penitentiary.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of penitentiary


15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a


1577, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for penitentiary

Noun and Adjective

Middle English penitenciary, from Medieval Latin poenitentiarius, from poenitentia

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Statistics for penitentiary

Last Updated

7 Sep 2019

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Time Traveler for penitentiary

The first known use of penitentiary was in the 15th century

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More Definitions for penitentiary


pen·​i·​ten·​tia·​ry | \ ˌpe-nə-ˈten-shə-rē How to pronounce penitentiary (audio) \
plural penitentiaries

Kids Definition of penitentiary

: prison


pen·​i·​ten·​tia·​ry | \ ˌpe-nə-ˈten-chə-rē How to pronounce penitentiary (audio) \
plural penitentiaries

Legal Definition of penitentiary

: a state or federal prison for the punishment and reformation of convicted felons — compare house of correction, house of detention, jail, lockup

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