noun, plural penitentiaries.
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.
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.
(of an offense) punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary.
of, pertaining to, or intended for imprisonment, reformatory discipline, or punishment.

1375–1425; late Middle English penitenciarie priest who administers penance, prison < Medieval Latin pēnitēntiārius of penance. See penitence, -ary Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
penitentiary (ˌpɛnɪˈtɛnʃərɪ)
n , pl -ries
1.  Sometimes shortened to: pen (in the US and Canada) a state or federal prison: in Canada, esp a federal prison for offenders convicted of serious crimes
2.  RC Church
 a.  a cleric appointed to supervise the administration of the sacrament of penance in a particular area
 b.  a priest who has special faculties to absolve particularly grave sins
 c.  a cardinal who presides over a tribunal that decides all matters affecting the sacrament of penance
 d.  this tribunal itself
3.  another word for penitential
4.  (US), (Canadian) (of an offence) punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary
[C15 (meaning also: an officer dealing with penances): from Medieval Latin poenitēntiārius, from Latin paenitēnspenitent]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Word Origin & History

early 15c., "place of punishment for offenses against the church," from M.L. penitentiaria, from fem. of penitentiarius (adj.) "of penance," from L. paenitentia "penitence" (see penitence). Meaning "house of correction" first found 1806 (originally an asylum for prostitutes).
Slang shortening pen is attested from 1884.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Example sentences
And there are those who would put me in the penitentiary for saying so.
The largest building project of its day, the penitentiary drew thousands of visitors, many from abroad.
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