pen·i·ten·tia·ry | \ ˌpe-nə-ˈten(t)-sh(ə-)rē \
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 , 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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Examples of penitentiary in a Sentence


a sentence in the state penitentiary for robbery

Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

Hedrick, who is serving time at a Texas penitentiary, has continued to deny any involvement in the deaths of Laura and the other two women. Travis Fedschun, Fox News, "Texas man may have solved daughter's 1984 murder," 13 June 2018 Fans can wallow in the King connections — the Shawshank penitentiary, now privatized, is a major factor — and the first episode sets up a potentially intriguing story involving a nameless inmate discovered in the prison’s depths. Mike Hale, New York Times, "The TV Binges of Summer, From Jack Ryan to ‘Better Call Saul’," 1 June 2018 On death row at the state penitentiary in Baltimore, a Catholic chaplain helped Brady get a new lawyer, E. Clinton Bamberger. Longreads, "The Bungled Bank Robbery That Ended in a Landmark Legal Ruling," 26 June 2018 Gebhardt and his brother-in-law were laborers at a pulp mill, but had reputations as toughs with nasty, racist streaks — and rap sheets: Gebhardt had been charged with aggravated assault several times and had spent time in a Georgia penitentiary. Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post, "A black man was murdered for dating a white woman. His killer was sentenced — 35 years later.," 27 June 2018 And why, for the love of all that is good, did Bill Skarsgard suddenly materialize in the basement of the Shawshank penitentiary? Rebecca Farley,, "Bill Skarsgard In Castle Rock Is His Most Chilling Role Yet," 10 July 2018 Streaming: Get a glimpse inside some of the most famous penitentiaries in the world and see what life's really like for the notorious criminals inhabiting them. Kayla Keegan, Good Housekeeping, "On TV This Week: All the Top Shows and Movies You Need to Catch," 7 July 2018 And kind of be rehabbed a little bit, because if prisoners that leave the penitentiary and then don't have rehab -- GUTFELD: Yes. WATTERS: -- 60 percent of them go back into prison for committing more crime. Greg Gutfeld, Fox News, "Gutfeld on Roseanne," 31 May 2018 One inmate died and eight were wounded in a September 2017 riot at a state penitentiary in San Luis Obispo, California. Anchorage Daily News, "Seven inmates die in hours-long South Carolina prison fights," 16 Apr. 2018

Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective

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


Middle English penitenciary, from Medieval Latin poenitentiarius, from poenitentia


see penitentiary entry 1

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Last Updated

21 Sep 2018

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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 \
plural penitentiaries

Kids Definition of penitentiary

: prison


pen·i·ten·tia·ry | \ ˌpe-nə-ˈten-chə-rē \
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

What made you want to look up penitentiary? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


occurring twice a year or every two years

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