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From Middle English penitentiary, from Medieval Latin pēnitentiārius (place of penitence), from Latin paenitentia (penitence), term used by the Quakers in Pennsylvania during the 1790s, describing a place for penitents to dwell upon their sins.


  • enPR: pĕn'·ĭ·tĕnʹ·shə·rē, IPA(key): /ˌpɛnɪˈtɛnʃəɹi/
  • (file)


penitentiary (plural penitentiaries)

  1. (chiefly US) A state or federal prison for convicted felons; (broadly) a prison.
  2. A priest in the Roman Catholic Church who administers the sacrament of penance.
  3. (obsolete) One who prescribes the rules and measures of penance.
    • a. 1627 (date written), Francis [Bacon], “Considerations Touching a VVarre vvith Spaine. []”, in William Rawley, editor, Certaine Miscellany VVorks of the Right Honourable Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount S. Alban. [], London: [] I. Hauiland for Humphrey Robinson, [], published 1629, →OCLC, pages 8–9:
      The Race of this Warre fell vpon the losse of Vrbin it selfe, which was the Dukes vndoubted Right; Yet in this case, no Penitentiary, (though hee had enioyned him neuer so strait Penance to expiate his first Offence,) would haue counselled him to haue giuen ouer the pursuit of his Right for Vrbin; Which after he prosperously re-obtained, []
  4. (obsolete) One who does penance.
  5. (obsolete) A small building in a monastery, or a part of a church, where penitents confessed.
    • 1875, Orby Shipley, A Theory about Sin:
      Topics which a priest may not treat , and which bishops declare are unfit for sacramental confession even in penitentiaries, become , with either public or private approval , the subject - matter of platform speeches
  6. (obsolete) An office of the papal court which examines cases of conscience, confession, absolution from vows, etc., and delivers decisions, dispensations, etc.; run by a cardinal called the Grand Penitentiary who is appointed by the pope.
  7. (obsolete) An officer in some dioceses since 1215, vested with power from the bishop to absolve in cases reserved to him.


Related terms[edit]


Further reading[edit]


penitentiary (not comparable)

  1. Of or relating to penance; penitential.
    • 1654, John Bramhall, A Just Vindication of the Church of England from the Unjust Aspersion of Criminal Schism:
      A penitentiary tax.
  2. Of or relating to the punishment of criminals.

Coordinate terms[edit]

  • (relating to the punishment of criminals): carceral