You need look no further than the prisoner abuse in Iraq to understand the importance of the work of the Correctional Association of New York.

For almost 160 years, since a law passed in 1846 gave it the legal authority to do so, the CA has been visiting and inspecting New York State prisons and reporting its findings and recommendations to the State Legislature and the public. It usually follows up its reports with public education and advocacy in support of reform legislation.

Off and on over the course of the CA’s history, it has had contentious dealings with state prison officials. But, since the summer of 1999, the relationship has been especially combative. In the past the CA would produce a report and the Department of Correctional Services would attack it, dismiss the findings, even villify the CA and its staff in the press and threaten the organization’s access to the prisons.

The latest incident dates to last August. Shortly after receiving a draft copy of the CA’s report Lockdown New York: Disciplinary Confinement in New York State Prisons, officials in the Department of Correctional Services retaliated by imposing a range of restrictions on the organization’s prison access, including how and with whom it can conduct visits, to whom it can speak during visits, and what part of the prisons it can see.

The Lockdown New York report, it’s important to point out, powerfully documents the many problems plaguing the state prisons’ punitive segregation units, especially the mistreatment and neglect of the disproportionate number of mentally ill inmates who end up confined there for 23 to 24 hours a day for week, months, sometimes years at a time with little or no social interaction. The report documents extreme sensory deprivation; high rates of suicide and acts of self-harm; men in their underwear cowering in corners, mumbling incoherently; men ranting so feverishly that it was unclear whether they were insane to begin with–or driven mad by the conditions of their confinment.

It’s too bad, isn’t it, that the Correctional Association can’t bring cameras into the prisons, rather than having to conjure up the images in words. But in important ways, the CA is our society’s camera. Its representatives go everywhere in the prisons: the cellblocks, clinics, yards, visiting rooms, kitchens, program areas, punitive segregation units. Its members talk to prisoners and guards. (The CA’s public education and advocacy program after the Lockdown New York report led to first steps toward more humane and sensible policies: The New York State Assembly passed a law banning the confinement of mentally ill people in disciplinary units; Governor Pataki also included an additional $13 million in his proposed budget for increased mental health services in the prisons.)

For months the Correctional Association tried “back channel” negotiations to resolve the dispute with the State, but prison officials remained intransigent on key issues involving access. Finally, in March, the CA sued in federal court, asserting that the State had effectively violated its First Amendment right to exercise free speech. The judge in the case has urged both parties to meet and seek a negotiated settlement; the CA has engaged in these meetings. What the outcome of these discussions will be is not yet clear.

So far legal fees for the case have amounted to over $100,000 (and that despite the 25 percent discount offered by CA’s lawyers, Emery, Celli, et al.) Since these costs were not budgeted, the CA must find a way to find untapped sources to cover them.

In my view, speaking as both a longtime board member of the CA and as a concerned citizen, it’s crucial that the Correctional Association prevails in this case, not only so that it can regain its access to our prisons–so critical to the organization’s valuable work–but also to send a message that the state government’s ugly, bullying tactic doesn’t carry the day. For information on how you can help, click here or contact Susan Gabriel at the Correctional Association at 135 East 15th Street, New York, NY 10003, 212-254-5700 or sgabriel@correctionalassocation.org.