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Prison vs. Penitentiary: Know the Difference

Shumaila Saeed
By Shumaila Saeed || Updated on December 25, 2023
Prison is a general term for a facility where people are legally held as punishment for crimes, while a penitentiary is a type of prison focusing on penance and rehabilitation.
Prison vs. Penitentiary

Key Differences

A prison is a secure facility where individuals convicted of crimes are detained, whereas a penitentiary is a type of prison specifically designed for serious offenders, emphasizing rehabilitation.
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Nov 10, 2023
In terms of operations, prisons can vary in security levels and inmate management, while penitentiaries are often high-security institutions with structured rehabilitation programs.
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The term prison is used more broadly and can include various types of detention facilities, whereas a penitentiary is usually reserved for long-term incarcerations focusing on moral reform.
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Prisons serve to isolate criminals from society, providing general containment, while penitentiaries aim to reform inmates, offering educational and vocational training.
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While all penitentiaries are prisons, not all prisons are penitentiaries; the latter has a specific focus on the reformation and rehabilitation of inmates.
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Comparison Chart

Purpose

General containment and punishment
Rehabilitation and moral reform
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Security Levels

Varies from minimum to maximum
Often high security
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Duration of Stay

Short-term to long-term incarceration
Typically long-term sentences
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Type of Inmates

Wide range of offenders
Often serious or repeat offenders
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Rehabilitation Focus

Varies, not always a primary focus
Strong emphasis on inmate rehabilitation
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Prison and Penitentiary Definitions

Prison

A facility for the confinement of individuals convicted of crimes.
The new prison was built to alleviate overcrowding.
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Penitentiary

A place for long-term incarceration.
Life sentences were served at the federal penitentiary.
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Prison

A state of being confined in such a place.
He spent a decade in prison for his crimes.
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Penitentiary

An institution focused on penance and reform.
The penitentiary's program aimed at moral rehabilitation.
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Prison

A place of captivity or confinement.
The hostages were kept in a makeshift prison.
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Penitentiary

A facility emphasizing inmate rehabilitation.
The penitentiary offered various vocational training programs.
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Prison

A restriction or limitation resembling imprisonment.
His illness felt like a prison.
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Penitentiary

A synonym for a high-security prison.
The escape from the maximum-security penitentiary shocked the nation.
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Prison

A place for the confinement and punishment of persons convicted of crimes, especially felonies.
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Oct 19, 2023

Penitentiary

A prison for those convicted of major crimes.
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Prison

A state of imprisonment or captivity
Years spent in prison.
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Penitentiary

A tribunal of the Roman Curia having jurisdiction in matters relating to penance, dispensations, and papal absolutions.
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Oct 19, 2023

Prison

A place or condition of confinement or restriction
Felt his job had been a prison.
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Penitentiary

A priest whose special function is the administration of the sacrament of penance in a particular church or diocese.
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Prison

To confine in or as if in a prison; imprison.
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Penitentiary

Of or for the purpose of penance; penitential.
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Prison

A place or institution where people are held against their will, especially for long-term confinement of those awaiting trial or convicted of serious crimes or otherwise considered undesirable by the government.
The cold stone walls of the prison had stood for over a century.
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Penitentiary

Relating to or used for punishment or reform of criminals or wrongdoers.
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Prison

(uncountable) Confinement in prison.
Prison was a harrowing experience for him.
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Penitentiary

Resulting in or punishable by imprisonment in a penitentiary
A penitentiary offense.
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Oct 19, 2023

Prison

Any restrictive environment, such as a harsh academy or home.
The academy was a prison for many of its students because of its strict teachers.
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Oct 19, 2023

Penitentiary

A state or federal prison for convicted felons; (broadly) a prison.
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Oct 19, 2023

Prison

(transitive) To imprison.
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Penitentiary

A priest in the Roman Catholic Church who administers the sacrament of penance.
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Prison

A place where persons are confined, or restrained of personal liberty; hence, a place or state o confinement, restraint, or safe custody.
Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name.
The tyrant Æolus, . . . With power imperial, curbs the struggling winds,And sounding tempests in dark prisons binds.
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Oct 19, 2023

Penitentiary

(obsolete) One who prescribes the rules and measures of penance.
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Prison

Specifically, a building for the safe custody or confinement of criminals and others committed by lawful authority.
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Penitentiary

(obsolete) One who does penance.
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Prison

To imprison; to shut up in, or as in, a prison; to confine; to restrain from liberty.
The prisoned eagle dies for rage.
His true respect will prison false desire.
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Penitentiary

(obsolete) A small building in a monastery, or a part of a church, where penitents confessed.
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Oct 19, 2023

Prison

To bind (together); to enchain.
Sir William Crispyn with the duke was ledTogether prisoned.
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Penitentiary

(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.
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Prison

A correctional institution where persons are confined while on trial or for punishment
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Penitentiary

(obsolete) An officer in some dioceses since 1215, vested with power from the bishop to absolve in cases reserved to him.
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Oct 19, 2023

Prison

A prisonlike situation; a place of seeming confinement
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Penitentiary

Of or relating to penance; penitential.
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Prison

An institution for reforming or punishing offenders.
The prison implemented new rehabilitation programs.
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Nov 10, 2023

Penitentiary

Of or relating to the punishment of criminals.
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Oct 19, 2023

Penitentiary

Relating to penance, or to the rules and measures of penance.
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Penitentiary

Expressive of penitence; as, a penitentiary letter.
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Penitentiary

Used for punishment, discipline, and reformation.
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Penitentiary

One who prescribes the rules and measures of penance.
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Penitentiary

One who does penance.
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Penitentiary

A small building in a monastery where penitents confessed.
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Penitentiary

That part of a church to which penitents were admitted.
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Penitentiary

An office of the papal court which examines cases of conscience, confession, absolution from vows, etc., and delivers decisions, dispensations, etc. Its chief is a cardinal, called the Grand Penitentiary, appointed by the pope.
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Penitentiary

A house of correction, in which offenders are confined for punishment, discipline, and reformation, and in which they are generally compelled to labor; a prison; a jail. Colloquially often shortened to pen.
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Oct 19, 2023

Penitentiary

A correctional institution for those convicted of major crimes
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Penitentiary

Used for punishment or reform of criminals or wrongdoers;
Penitentiary institutions
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Repeatedly Asked Queries

What is the main purpose of a prison?

Prisons primarily serve to confine and punish individuals convicted of crimes.
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Can a prison be minimum security?

Yes, prisons can range from minimum to maximum security levels.
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What distinguishes a penitentiary from other prisons?

Penitentiaries focus on rehabilitation and moral reform of serious offenders.
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Are all prisons designed for long-term incarceration?

Not necessarily, prisons vary in terms of the length of stay and type of inmates.
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Are penitentiaries always high security?

Typically, penitentiaries are high-security facilities for serious crimes.
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Can juvenile offenders be sent to a regular prison?

Juvenile offenders are usually sent to juvenile detention centers, not regular prisons.
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Do penitentiaries offer rehabilitation programs?

Yes, penitentiaries often have structured rehabilitation and education programs.
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Do prisons only house convicted criminals?

Primarily, though some may temporarily hold individuals awaiting trial.
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Do prisons offer educational programs for inmates?

Some do, but the extent and quality of programs can vary widely.
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Is there a difference in the treatment of inmates in prisons and penitentiaries?

Treatment can vary, with penitentiaries often focusing more on rehabilitation.
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Can non-violent criminals be held in penitentiaries?

It's less common, as penitentiaries are typically for more serious offenses.
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Do prisons play a role in reducing crime?

The effectiveness of prisons in crime reduction is a subject of debate.
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What kind of offenders are sent to a penitentiary?

Penitentiaries generally house serious or repeat offenders.
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Is solitary confinement more common in prisons or penitentiaries?

It can occur in both but is often associated with high-security penitentiaries.
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Can people visit inmates in penitentiaries?

Yes, but the rules and conditions for visits may be strict.
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Are there private prisons and penitentiaries?

Yes, there are private institutions in some countries.
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Is the death penalty administered in penitentiaries?

In some jurisdictions, penitentiaries may house death row inmates.
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Can inmates in penitentiaries earn parole?

Yes, depending on the jurisdiction and individual circumstances.
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Are penitentiaries part of the federal prison system?

Penitentiaries can be part of both federal and state prison systems.
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Is the term 'penitentiary' used worldwide?

The term is primarily used in North America, with variations in other regions.
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Nov 10, 2023

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About Author
Shumaila Saeed
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Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed, an expert content creator with 6 years of experience, specializes in distilling complex topics into easily digestible comparisons, shining a light on the nuances that both inform and educate readers with clarity and accuracy.

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