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

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Examples of penitentiary in a Sentence

Noun a sentence in the state penitentiary for robbery
Recent Examples on the Web: Noun Saint Frances Academy had long grown accustomed to its place in the shadow of the penitentiary. Tim Prudente,, "With regret and satisfaction, Baltimore watches the infamous Maryland Pen tumble down," 25 Sep. 2020 As a solitary-confinement prisoner in Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary, Albert Woodfox was regularly gassed, beaten and restrained by guards. Susan Dunne,, "Albert Woodfox, author of ‘Solitary’ talks about life in solitary confinement, self-knowledge through Black Panthers," 18 Sep. 2020 Oregon prisoners are also being moved into Salem's state penitentiary in light of the region's spreading wildfires, the Department of Corrections confirmed on Wednesday. Tim Gruver, Washington Examiner, "Governor: Oregon fires could cause 'greatest loss in human lives and property' in state history," 10 Sep. 2020 Frakes said prisoner visits will remain on hold across the agency while the penitentiary is in quarantine. From Usa Today Network And Wire Reports, USA TODAY, "Memorial island, wildlife upside, theater troubles: News from around our 50 states," 1 Sep. 2020 Death row, for a decade located in a building on the grounds of the state penitentiary in Salem, is clearing out to make room for a disciplinary unit. oregonlive, "Christian Longo, other killers now in general population as Oregon’s death row clears out," 17 June 2020 There’s the infamous 1858 penitentiary from Beat literature and Prison Break. Anne Olivia Bauso, Travel + Leisure, "The Ultimate Route 66 Road Trip Guide," 22 Aug. 2020 Indiana State Police has agreed to allow death penalty protesters to gather near the entrance of the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute during executions. Elizabeth Depompei, The Indianapolis Star, "Indiana State Police agrees to allow death penalty protesters to gather closer to prison," 14 Aug. 2020 The island operated as a federal penitentiary only between 1934 and 1963. Kurtis Alexander,, "Alcatraz — at least the outdoor areas — to reopen Monday after 5-month coronavirus closure," 13 Aug. 2020 Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective And the underlying idea between both of these penitentiary systems, that people who had come into conflict with the law, who had been convicted of crimes, shouldn’t be subject to corporal punishment. Henry Gass, The Christian Science Monitor, "Who’s really inside America’s jails? (audio)," 3 Aug. 2020 Death row is located in a far corner of the penitentiary grounds. oregonlive, "Oregon to close death row, reassign inmates to general population, other housing," 15 May 2020 But their view was largely blocked by armed penitentiary police officers who stood behind the defendants at all times. Washington Post, "Trial begins for jailed American pals in policeman’s slaying," 26 Feb. 2020 Lavrov also said Whelan had threatened the penitentiary officers guarding him. David Jackson, USA TODAY, "'We’ve shared plenty of facts': Pompeo, Lavrov clash over election meddling ahead of Trump meeting," 10 Dec. 2019 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

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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Time Traveler for penitentiary

Time Traveler

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

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Statistics for penitentiary

Last Updated

30 Sep 2020

Cite this Entry

“Penitentiary.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 1 Oct. 2020.

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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


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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