The Correctional Association of New York was founded in 1844 by John W. Edmonds, President of the Board of Inspectors at Sing Sing Prison. Originally named the Prison Association of New York, the organization was formed to ameliorate the conditions of criminal defendants and people in prison, improve the discipline and administration of local jails and state prisons, and furnish assistance and encouragement to people returning to their communities after incarceration. It is the only private organization in the state that has the power to conduct on-site examinations of state correctional facilities and report its findings and recommendations to governmental authorities and the public.

During the nineteenth century, the organization took a leading role in prison reform in the United States and the world. It formed the National Prison Association (now the American Prison Association), a nationwide umbrella organization, in 1870. Two years later, it started the International Prison Congress, a world-wide gathering of prison officials and social reformers that met every five years. The League of Nations eventually assumed responsibility for running the conferences, which are now held under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Association has been active in promoting numerous criminal justice system reforms in New York State. The organization was instrumental in creating New York State’s first probation and parole systems (c.1875) and pressed for the creation of separate facilities for youth convicted of crimes (1864-74) and a separate juvenile justice system (1874-1904). The Association sought to ensure that incarcerated people had opportunities to acquire formal education and advocated for the creation of prison libraries (1904-24). It also fought to ensure that people could learn a trade while incarcerated and that their labor was not exploited. Other policies the Association advocated for included: a prison classification system; opposition to corporal punishment (1844-64); the Presidential Commutation Act; special care facilities for people in prison afflicted with tuberculosis; establishment of a psychiatric clinic at Sing Sing Prison; creation of the New York City Parole Commission; development of policies which enabled incarcerated people to contribute to the war effort by working in war-related industries (1940-42); and creation of an adequate public defender system.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the CA advocated for the establishment of a Crime Victims Compensation Board (1965-66) and pressed for the decriminalization of pornography, sexual acts between consenting adults, and other victimless crimes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Association became the first to address the crisis of HIV/AIDS in prison, fought against severe prison overcrowding, worked to repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for people convicted of drug crimes and worked to educate the public about the immense costs incurred by city, county, and state correctional agencies and to promote alternatives to incarceration.