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

Ten of the 16 prisoners who were blamed for instigating the violence will be transferred to federal penitentiaries, state media reported, citing local authorities. Ivana Kottasová, CNN, "Prison riot in Brazil leaves 16 inmates decapitated and dozens more killed," 30 July 2019 Many prisons are controlled at the state level, so the Bolsonaro administration has called on states to build more prisons and for drug lords to be moved to federal penitentiaries. Terrence Mccoy And,, "Dozens of inmates killed in Brazil prison riot," 29 July 2019 The corrections department said another prisoner was found dead Wednesday at the penitentiary, but that the two in-custody deaths were not related. Adam Kealoha Causey, Fox News, "Oklahoma man convicted in hate-crime killing dies in prison," 13 Sep. 2018 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 Uzo Aduba won the dramedy’s only acting Emmys, while Emmy-nominee Laverne Cox, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, and Dascha Polanco all gave masterful performances that lifted their careers far beyond life in Litchfield federal penitentiary. Leanne Italie,, "‘Orange Is the New Black’ leaves legacy for women of color," 10 July 2019 The prospect of devoting 89 minutes to Larry Nassar, disgraced Olympics doctor and long-term guest of our federal penitentiary system, offers about as much appeal as a recreational gum-scraping. John Anderson, WSJ, "‘At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal’ Review: Who Couldn’t Have Known?," 2 May 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

10 Aug 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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Comments on penitentiary

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a usually brief trip or an expedition

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