From IT to Inmate-Care

Josh Rosenthal is the Self-Described “Poster Boy” for Mid-Life Change

February 20, 2013

Even when it comes to one’s education and career, the third time can be a charm. Or in the case of Brooklyn-born, Riker’s Island Mental Health Clinician Josh Rosenthal, a third Master's degree. In the mid-2000s, after spending 22 years as an IT executive Vice President for JP Morgan Chase Bank—and despite already being in his 50s—Rosenthal decided to enroll in Touro’s Graduate School of Psychology to pursue certification in Mental Health Counseling. What would motivate an individual toward such a drastic, mid-life change in ambition, you may ask?

“I didn’t particularly like the whole corporate life at that point,” he says. “So I decided to do a 180, about-face.” In truth, it’s really more of a full-circle. Rosenthal had been volunteering for several years at a group home for the developmentally disabled while at Chase, and as an undergrad, initially pursued a psychology major and interned at an outpatient mental health facility. “I was relatively young then,” he recalls. “I felt so ill-equipped dealing with that population especially those with psychotic disorders, and that’s what when I thought, ‘Maybe this wasn’t really the right field for me, and I became a math major and ended up working for banks in the IT field.”

Decades later, it would have been understandable if Rosenthal simply retired in lieu of returning to his original academic passion. As he explains it, “I was being laid off due to the latest bank merger (JP Morgan Chase with Bank One of Chicago), since my department was being moved to Columbus, OH and I had no interest in relocating there. I was obviously very apprehensive… I really didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do then.” Fortunately, he had friends who were clinical psychologists, and they introduced him to Touro’s Mental Health Counseling program, which Rosenthal then completed in 2008 (and with a 4.0 index no less). An internship in the criminal courts was next (under the guidance of Dr Alan Perry, a forensic psychologist and instructor at Touro), where he witnessed first-hand how a criminal defendant's mental capacity is assessed determining whether they are mentally fit to stand trial or be sentenced. A second, Touro-sponsored internship followed at a drug-rehab center, where Rosenthal got his first experience with one-on-one counseling. All this finally led to his full-time job at Riker’s and a small private practice, a new milestone in his life’s journey. And, for the reinvented former IT exec, new perspective on a controversial segment of the American population.

“I won’t lie, when I first started at Riker’s over 4 years ago, I definitely was very intimidated, as far as how I’m going to relate to that population,” he admits. “I already had a flavor of that when I worked in the drug-rehab center…. I never had these experiences they had, I never tried drugs. But just like a doctor, you don’t have to have a disease in order to treat the person. As long as you have the clinical knowledge, that’s what I base it on. I also try and separate the criminal from the criminal act and view them as a flawed human being. If I think of them strictly as a murderer or a rapist, I’ll never get past that.”

It’s not always easy for Rosenthal to break through to his clients, particularly when he’s juggling both criminals of varied backgrounds and the glares of correctional officers who have their own way of meting out order. But since beginning at Riker’s, he has managed to reach inmates who might have otherwise seemed unreachable.

“Yeah, a significant number of cases,” he says. “I can’t say all, because it’s obviously a tough population, especially since I work in a special punitive segregation area in which inmates with mental disorders have committed criminal infractions both in jail as well as on the outside. I also deal at times with adolescents, who are the worst of the worst in being receptive to counseling. But I definitely reached a number of them, and had some great sessions with them where they would open up a lot…. Being in such a tough environment, [the fact] that they have someone willing to listen to them and show some understanding, that can make a world of difference.”

“I also discovered that this field, unlike in the corporate world which is much more youth oriented, age can be an asset. Many inmates have remarked to me that they appreciate being counseled by someone who is more mature and experienced – automatically assuming that I have been doing this for years.”

Of the many situations Rosenthal deals with, he often finds the emergency calls, such as potential suicides (not uncommon, especially when facing long prison sentences) most gratifying. ”If I can provide them with a more positive outlook and meaning in life and help avert or deflect their self-destructive behaviors, it’s incredibly rewarding.” 

It’s also motivated Rosenthal to change his own outlook on his potential and the way we can all positively affect each other’s lives. “Working at Riker’s has proven to be the most challenging as well as the most rewarding experience of my life so far. I never thought I could relate to such diverse populations as well as I have, populations that are so far removed from my own background and culture. As a result I’ve gained a much deeper understanding of all types of people - including myself! I regard myself as the poster boy for something like this,” he chuckles. “It’s never too late to make a major change in one’s life be it a career change as I have done or in any other area. I feel like I’m the living proof that one can teach an old dog new tricks. I’m really grateful to Touro for providing me the tools to make this happen.”