What Is a Penitentiary?

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  • Originally Written By: Kyla G. Kelim
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 10 March 2020
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A penitentiary is a prison or correctional facility that houses people who have been convicted of a crime. The origin of the word "penitentiary" is rooted in ideas of repentance for transgressions. While most modern facilities continue to house inmates as a form of punishment, its historical counterpart was based on harsher theories of incarceration than those most common in the early 21st century. Facilities today often focus less on exacting grueling punishment and more on rehabilitation, providing inmates with treatment and education along with their incarceration when possible. Still, they are usually considered to be the toughest or harshest option in sentencing, and are commonly associated with very limited liberties and rights. These sorts of facilities are in use around the world, though the term is perhaps most common in the US and Europe.

Sentencing and Incarceration

Before people are incarcerated, they are almost always sentenced by a judge after a trial. There are a number of competing interests and goals with regard to sentencing that help define the penitentiary. One major goal is satisfying the need for retribution so citizens do not take punishment into their own hands. Another goal is deterrence, or keeping order in society, by providing a disincentive for inmates to re-offend. The goal of rehabilitation is a more modern notion and is the force behind many programs that assist inmates with mental health issues, substance abuse problems and education.


Role in the Correctional System Generally

In most cases, prisons and larger housing facilities are only part of the larger correctional system, and they're usually reserved for the most serious offenders. Also included and considered during sentencing are facilities of lesser custody, such as work-release programs and halfway houses, where the prisoner works during the day and returns to a correctional facility to sleep. Probation and parole provide supervision and aftercare for the offender after release from jail or prison system. Other alternatives include working at unpaid community service, payment of fines, and completion of court-ordered classes or therapy.

Building Layout

A penitentiary is typically a complex building, with sections and sometimes even entirely separate buildings to house female inmates apart from male inmates. In larger areas there are sometimes even separate facilities in different geographic locations for the different sexes. In either setup, there are usually also are areas to house inmates who haven't yet been tried separate from those who have been tried and are serving their sentences. Still further segregation may separate the worst of the convicted offenders from the general prison population. There also are areas designed for solitary confinement, and areas with cells that are under constant watch; these are often used for inmates believed by prison officials to be suicidal or likely to harm themselves.

These facilities are almost always designed with varying levels of security to house inmates according to the severity of their crime and their perceived potential for violence and escape attempts. These levels of security may be boosted outside with architectural and geographic features such as earthen beams, thick walls, tall fencing, and guard towers. Inside security features can include floor-to-ceiling gates, security cameras, and other design elements that discourage both violence within the building and escape attempts.

Other Amenities

Most modern prison facilities also include a range of other amenities and services for the health and well-being of the inmates. Most have medical clinics, for instance, so inmates can receive medical and dental care without having to leave the premises. They also may contain a chapel or other area that can be used for inmates who want to participate in religious observances. Educational facilities and libraries also are common, too, and these are often utilized in the reform portion of an inmate's sentence to help him or her get an education — possibly studying to earn a high school equivalency diploma or learn a trade. Such facilities also may be used for therapy sessions for inmates trying to overcome an addiction or deal with a mental health issue.


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