Penitentiary may have two meanings or definitions. Penitentiary may be a federal prison or a judgment session overseen by a cardinal dealing with questions of conscience. Prisons as penitentiary were built in the early part of the 19th century and embodied the principle of solitary confinement as punishment for a criminal offense.
The first penitentiary in North America was at Auburn, New York, built in 1816-25, and came to be known as the silent system. Offenders were confined in solitary cells at night and worked in congregate (and silence) during the day. Eastern State Penitentiary, built at Cherry Hill, Pennsylvania in 1829, embodied the solitary system, as offenders were confined to solitary cells for the entire period of confinement. As suggested by the name, penitentiaries had a strong Christian influence.
A penitent is one who repents of sins, or feels pain or sorrow for offenses. Also one who is admitted to penance, which is the sacrament consisting in repentance or contrition for sins. Early advocates of the penitentiary, such as John Howard, were influenced by their Christian faith and equated crime with sin.
This penitentiary model provided a philosophy of punishment and also shaped Anglo-European penology by assuming that criminal offenders would be reformed or rehabilitated by confining them in a penitentiary.