June 28, 2022 SPRING 2022

Virginia Barber-Rioja ’02, ’09: NYC Corrections Psychologist and Mental Health Advocate

Virginia Barber-Rioja, Ph.D. ’02, ’09 oversees the clinics, programs, and teams that provide mental health services across New York City’s correctional facilities as Co-Chief of Mental Health for New York City Health + Hospitals. “There are a lot of people in the system who need treatment but don’t have access to the right resources,” says Barber-Rioja, a Canary Island native. “We’re here to help.”

Barber-Rioja has worked to reduce recidivism, increase the success rate of system-impacted individuals, and improve mental health evaluation and treatment for incarcerated individuals. The work is sometimes challenging but always worth it. “My favorite moment is when we get a letter from someone who has been released,” she says. “They tell us how well they’re doing and that makes all the challenging moments completely worthwhile.”

The first in her family to earn a college degree, Barber-Rioja worked with substance users and people who had AIDS as a student and found her calling. “They had little to no access to resources and histories of trauma, substance use, and mental illness,” she says. “Many ended up in the correctional system as opposed to getting appropriate rehabilitative treatment.”

 

“My favorite moment is when we get a letter from someone who has been released. They tell us how well they’re doing and that makes all the challenging moments completely worthwhile.” – Virginia Barber-Rioja, Ph.D. ‘02, ‘09

 

To continue her studies, Barber-Rioja moved to the U.S., took English classes, and enrolled in John Jay’s MA in Forensic Psychology program. She struggled in the beginning. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the English language,” she says. “I remember after one of my first classes crying outside the building.” A classmate, Jebediah Gaffney ’03, offered to help. “He would share his class notes with me and help me study English. In return, I helped him learn Spanish.”

M.A. in hand, Barber-Rioja worked with an alternative to incarceration program in Brooklyn and, aiming to improve the system, later enrolled in John Jay’s new Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology. As part of her clinical practice, she worked in a forensic unit at Bellevue Hospital, working with system-impacted people experiencing symptoms of mental illness. “My passion for this work deepened and I knew that I wanted to work with this population.”

 

“My passion for this work deepened and I knew that I wanted to work with this population.”– Virginia Barber-Rioja, Ph.D. ‘02, ‘09

 

After receiving her Ph.D., Barber-Rioja worked with mental health diversion programs and then eagerly accepted a position at Rikers. “I felt there was an opportunity for improvement in care at Rikers,” she says. “I believe that you can change people’s outlooks and transform treatments and systems inside-out. We were able to hire psychologists, social workers, creative art therapists, and counselors. It has really made an incredible difference.”

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Contents

Remembering Our Heroes

Looking back on 9/11 two decades after the tragedy. By Andrea Dawn Clark

Improving Mental Health Behind Bars

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

President’s Letter

“We’re living through challenging times.” I’ve found myself writing, saying, and contemplating those five words countless times this year.

President
Karol V. Mason

Chief Communication Officer
Kira Poplowski, Ph.D.

Editorial Director
Andrea Dawn Clark

Writer/Editor
Shirley Del Valle

Creative Director
Laura DeVries

Web Developer
Chunhui Meng

Web Producer
Anh Phan