January 28, 2022 FALL 2021

Improving Mental Health Behind Bars

Alumna Virginia Barber-Rioja’s, Ph.D.,’02, ’09 passion for psychology and law helps system-impacted individuals with mental health challenges.

By Shirley Del Valle

As Co-Chief of Mental Health for New York City Health + Hospitals, Correctional Health Services, alumna Virginia Barber-Rioja, Ph.D., ’02, ’09 oversees the clinics, programming, and dedicated team providing mental health treatment services to system-involved individuals in New York City’s correctional facilities. With nearly two decades in the forensic psychology field, she knows how vital this work is. “There are a lot of people in the system that need treatment but don’t have access to the right resources,” says Barber-Rioja, a native of Lanzarote, the Canary Islands, Spain. “We’re here to help.”

Throughout her career, Barber-Rioja has worked to reduce recidivism, increase the success rate of system-impacted individuals after re-entry, and improve the mental health evaluation and treatment processes for incarcerated individuals. The work has at times been trying, but for Barber-Rioja it’s always been worth it. “There are challenging days but there are also really good days,” she shares. “My favorite moment is when we get a letter from someone who has been released back into their community. They tell us how well they’re doing, that they’re following the treatment plan, attending group sessions, and that they’re grateful for the help they received. That makes all the challenging moments completely worthwhile.”

Serving Others
Growing up with a passion for helping others, Barber-Rioja vividly recalls the moment she became interested in psychology. “I was walking to school with my mother when I noticed a group of people in a courtyard injecting themselves with heroin and passing out on the street. I remember asking my mom: ‘Are they okay?’ It was then my mom began to explain what drugs and substance use were,” she says. “That was the beginning of my interest in human behavior.”

Her drive to learn more about why people do what they do led Barber-Rioja to enroll in a college in Madrid, where she studied Clinical Psychology and worked with marginalized communities, including substance users and people who had AIDS. It was during this experience that she began to see a correlation between mental illness, substance use, and incarceration. “The people in the substance use treatment program had all been system-involved and most were living with serious mental illness. For the AIDS population I was working with, they were also homeless and a lot of them contracted the virus through drug use,” explains Barber-Rioja, who went on to become the first in her family to graduate college. “That’s when I started to really think about people living in poor, marginalized communities. They had little to no access to resources, and ended up having these histories of trauma, substance use, and mental illness. Many of them ended up in the correctional system as opposed to getting the appropriate rehabilitative treatment.”


“I started to really think about people living in poor, marginalized communities. They had little to no access to resources, and ended up having these histories of trauma, substance use, and mental illness. Many of them ended up in the correctional system.”
Virginia Barber-Rioja


Finding John Jay
Following a conversation with her mentor who suggested she look into the Forensic Psychology Master’s Program at John Jay College, Barber-Rioja turned to her uncle Alberto for advice. “He was the only member in the family who had ever been to the U.S. and the only one who spoke English. My uncle told me ‘You need to go to New York. You need to learn English, and I’m going to help you.’” Before Barber-Rioja knew it, she had a plane ticket to the U.S., was enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in New York, and had her rent paid for during the duration of the master’s program—all courtesy of her father. “I was in shock at how fast everything happened. Not only was I in New York just a few months later, there I was not speaking a single word of English.”

Enrolling at John Jay soon after arriving, Barber-Rioja quickly fell in love with the College and its Forensic Psychology program, but admits she struggled at the start of her academic journey. “I was really determined to do well, but in the beginning I felt overwhelmed. Even though I passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL], I still didn’t feel comfortable with the English language,” she says, adding that during her first semester she recorded all her classes and would transcribe and translate them at home. “I was feeling so frustrated with myself because I couldn’t understand the language. I remember after one of my first classes crying outside of the old building.” That’s when a fellow classmate, Jebediah Gaffney ’03, offered Barber-Rioja a helping hand. “I give Jebediah a lot of credit because if it wasn’t for his help, I don’t know if I would have been as successful. We had the same classes so he would share his class notes with me and help me study my English,” she says. “In return, I’d help him learn Spanish.”

Gaining Experience
After graduating with a master’s degree in 2002, Barber-Rioja hit the ground running, working as a case manager in an alternative to incarceration program in Brooklyn. “I interviewed people who had been recently arrested and helped determine whether they had a mental illness. If they did, I would go to Brooklyn Mental Health Court and advocate on their behalf. If the judge and District Attorney in the case agreed, the person would enter a rehabilitative community-based treatment program instead of the prison system,” she says. Real-world experiences such as these allowed Barber-Rioja to gain an understanding of the court system. It also opened her eyes to how difficult it can be for people to get treatment via a public health system. “I realized I wanted to become a licensed psychologist and help improve the system. But to do that, I needed my doctorate. Luckily at that time, John Jay was starting a doctoral program in Psychology.”

Earning Her Doctorate
Joining the first cohort of students in John Jay’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program, Barber-Rioja was inspired by the dedicated faculty who welcomed and appreciated student feedback on shaping the program. “They were building this incredible program that offered the perfect balance between research and clinical practice.” They also provided students remarkable guidance and support. “Doctors Tom Kurcharski, Michelle Galietta, Maureen O’Connor, and Patricia Zapf always led the way for students with such care, respect, and overall commitment to our success,” says Barber-Rioja. “Personally, they were always in my corner, always supportive and encouraging.”

As part of her clinical practice, Barber-Rioja worked in an inpatient forensic unit at Bellevue Hospital—now part of the New York City Health + Hospitals system—where she dealt directly with the City’s system-impacted population. “Bellevue is the place where the New York City Police Department [NYPD] will bring people if they’re experiencing symptoms of mental illness. It’s also where individuals incarcerated at Rikers Island are sent if they’re experiencing acute symptoms of mental illness,” says Barber-Rioja. “As I began to work with them, my passion for this work deepened and I knew for a fact that this was the population I wanted to work with.”

Working at Rikers
Earning her Ph.D. in 2009, Barber-Rioja went on to become the Clinical Director of the Queens TASC Mental Health Diversion program, and then the Director of Brooklyn LINK court mental health diversion program. But her work with the Rikers Island population remained close to her heart. So, when New York City Health + Hospitals became the health care provider for Rikers in 2016, she jumped at the chance to provide a greater level of services to those in the system. “I felt there was an opportunity for improvement in care at Rikers,” says Barber-Rioja. “With New York City Health + Hospitals leading the way, we would be able to provide individuals with access to an entire team, one comprised of dedicated and caring health care workers, from a number of different backgrounds and disciplines, who could provide this population with thorough mental health services.”


“Violence is a public health issue, and we need to address it as such.”
Virginia Barber-Rioja


Improving the System
Being named the clinical director and then later the Co-Chief of Mental Health for New York City Health + Hospitals, Correctional Health Services meant Barber-Rioja would be able to not only improve on the programs already in place, but she’d also be able to create new ways of operating.  “I believe that if you are a good leader, you can change people’s outlooks and transform treatments and systems inside-out. I knew that working with New York City Health + Hospitals, we would be able to do great things. From the start we were able to hire psychologists, social workers, creative art therapists, and counselors to help incarcerated individuals improve their mental health,” she says. “Providing the appropriate services and support has really made an incredible difference.”

Looking ahead to her future in the role, Barber-Rioja hopes to help inform policy that will make public mental health care readily accessible and more accommodating for justice-involved individuals. “Violence is a public health issue, and we need to address it as such. We need to do a lot in the way of prevention, fixing the education and foster care system, providing more employment and support programs, and removing the stigma surrounding mental illness,” she says. “But if any City can do that, it’s New York. If we work together to effect change, to create policy that eliminates barriers and gets people proper mental health services when they need it, we can make a remarkable difference in people’s lives.”


“If we work together to effect change, to create policy that eliminates barriers and gets people proper mental health services when they need it, we can make a remarkable difference in people’s lives.” —Virginia Barber-Rioja

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