The prison, which officially received its first prisoners from Auburn Prison in July 1876, began a new era in the science of penology as the first "reformatory". The harsh methods of the "Auburn" and "Pennsylvania Systems" including corporal punishment, striped uniforms and lockstep marching were rejected along with the earlier reforms fostered by the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Under its warden Zebulon Brockway, imprisonment was designed to reform each inmate by an individualized program. Brockway rejected pointless hard labor, a regime of silence, religious and morality lectures, and strict obedience enforced by brutality.
Influenced by the methods of Walter Crofton's "Irish system" as well as Alexander Maconochie's experiments in Australian penal colonies, discipline was largely patterned after military academies as inmates would be dressed in military style uniforms often marching to the tune of a fife and bugle band.
Inmates would be classified by three "grades" with newly arriving prisoners being placed at second grade for their first six months. Those becoming the most responsive and cooperative prisoners earned a first grade, with the opportunity to earn additional privileges or "marks" including earning a reduction of their sentences or being granted parole (although inmates could be demoted if failing in their duties), while those less responsive to rehabilitation or inmates with behavioral problems were placed at third grade.
However under instituted indeterminate sentencing, tension was often high among the general population as prisoners were rarely informed how long the terms of their imprisonment lasted. Brockway's later use of corporal punishment, whose "Paddler Brockway" system would eventually result in the transfer of several prisoners to mental asylums, causing some to question the success of the reformatory system.
However, following Brockway's resignation, the reformatory reinstituted to standard custody and treatment methods and eventually converted to the Elmira Correctional and Reception Center, an adult maximum security prison holding approximately 1800 inmates.