[ pen-i-ten-shuh-ree ]
See synonyms for penitentiary on
noun,plural pen·i·ten·tia·ries.
  1. a place for imprisonment, reformatory discipline, or punishment, especially a prison maintained in the U.S. by a state or the federal government for serious offenders.

  2. Roman Catholic Church. a tribunal in the Curia Romana, presided over by a cardinal (grand penitentiary ), having jurisdiction over certain matters, as penance, confession, dispensation, absolution, and impediments, and dealing with questions of conscience reserved for the Holy See.

  1. (of an offense) punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary.

  2. of, relating to, or intended for imprisonment, reformatory discipline, or punishment.

Origin of penitentiary

1375–1425; late Middle English penitenciarie priest who administers penance, prison <Medieval Latin pēnitēntiārius of penance. See penitence, -ary

Words Nearby penitentiary Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

How to use penitentiary in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for penitentiary


/ (ˌpɛnɪˈtɛnʃərɪ) /

nounplural -ries
  1. (in the US and Canada) a state or federal prison: in Canada, esp a federal prison for offenders convicted of serious crimes: Sometimes shortened to: pen

  2. RC Church

    • a cleric appointed to supervise the administration of the sacrament of penance in a particular area

    • a priest who has special faculties to absolve particularly grave sins

    • a cardinal who presides over a tribunal that decides all matters affecting the sacrament of penance

    • this tribunal itself

  1. another word for penitential (def. 1)

  2. US and Canadian (of an offence) punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary

Origin of penitentiary

C15 (meaning also: an officer dealing with penances): from Medieval Latin poenitēntiārius, from Latin paenitēns penitent

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012