Penitentiary is a word which has been variously applied.
(I.) In the early Christian Church it designated certain presbyters or priests, appointed in every church to receive the private confessions of the people; not in prejudice to the public discipline, nor with the power of granting absolution before any penance was performed, but in order to facilitate public discipline, by acquainting the people what sins were to be expiated by public penance, and to appoint private penance for such private crimes as were not proper to be publicly censured (Bingham, Orig. Eccles. bk. 18, ch. 3). The office of general confessor, or penitentiary priest, in a diocese, mentioned by Sozomen and Socrates, was abrogated in the East by Nectarius of Constantinople in the reign of the emperor Theodosius. It subsists, however, to this day in the Romish Church, where the penitentiaries are of various rank and dignity. Thus there are,
1. The cardinal grand penitentiary, who presides over the tribunal of the penitentiaries at Rome; and
2. Penitentiary priests, established for the hearing of confessions in the three patriarchal churches at Rome, viz. those of the Vatican, the Lateran. and of Santa Maria Maggiore.
3. Penitentiary priests, established in the cathedral churches for the purpose of absolving cases reserved to the bishops of the several dioceses. The Council of Trent (sess. 24, c. 8) decreed that every bishop should establish in his cathedral church a penitentiary, who must be either a master, a doctor, or a licentiate in theology or in the canon law, and of the age of forty years.
(II.) The term is applied among Protestants to such houses as have been established for the reception and reformation of females who have been seduced from the path of virtue. Of penitentiaries, in this sense, there are 63 in Great Britain and Ireland, capable of receiving 2657 inmates, besides numerous small private "Homes." The single condition of admission to most of the institutions is "penitence," a desire and endeavor to return to a virtuous life. The inmates remain in the strictest seclusion for periods varying from a few months to two years, the average time being about a year; they then return to their friends, or to situations provided for them. It is an invariable rule not to dismiss any one without seeing that she is provided with the means of honest subsistence. During their seclusion they are employed in needlework, washing, and housework. The ages at which they are received vary from fourteen to forty. In the metropolis there are 19 institutions, accommodating 1155 women; in other towns of England, 34 institutions, accommodating 1116; and in the chief towns of Scotland and Ireland, 10 institutions, with accommodation for 386. One third of the provincial and one half of the metropolitan establishments have been created in the last ten years. The oldest institution in existence is the London Magdalen Hospital, opened in 1758; the next, that of Dublin, 1767; Edinburgh follows in 1797; and none of the others date earlier than the present century. The results of these penitentiaries, as far as they can be ascertained, are excellent. During the last one hundred years, 8983 women have passed through the London Magdalen. This most important and useful institution is supported by voluntary contributions, patronized by royalty, and conducted on truly Christian principles, by means of which numbers of miserable outcasts have not only been recovered to the proprieties of moral conduct, but have given satisfactory evidence of genuine conversion to God.
(III.) In the United States the name, having been adopted by the Quakers of Pennsylvania in 1786, when they caused the legislature of that state to abolish the punishments of death, mutilation, and the whip, and to substitute solitary confinement as a reformatory process, is applied to all those prisons which are constructed on reformatory principles, whether the convicts be men or women. The happiest results have flowed from the efforts of the Prison Discipline Society directed to this point. SEE PRISON REFORM.