BUENA VISTA. When Deacon Russ Barrows was assigned to minister to Buena Vista Correctional Facility (BVCF) inmates, he was thrilled to be able to share God’s word in the midst of a stressful environment.
As prison chaplain, Deacon Barrows conducts Communion services so prisoners may hear God’s word and receive the Eucharist. Also, he prays and discusses spiritual matters with inmates, holds Order of Christian Initiation classes to catechize inmates in the Catholic faith, and prepares those seeking to join the Catholic Church.
BVCF is a Colorado Department of Corrections owned and operated state prison for men. Founded in 1892 as the Colorado State Reformatory for juvenile offenders, BVCF is the second oldest prison in the state.
Deacon Barrows is no stranger to working with inmates, having served in prison ministry in Jefferson County and the state prison system for nearly 20 years.
“In addition to bringing the Word of God to offenders, just being a person they can talk to within a safe environment has helped prisoners over the years,” Deacon Barrows said.
Deacon Barrows brings a wealth of compassion and experience to his ministry. As a youngster, the Denver-born- and-raised deacon enjoyed summers swimming and camping in the Arkansas Valley. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver in 1969.
When weak vision kept Deacon Barrows from pursuing his love of aviation, he channeled his interest in chemistry and math. He later earned degrees in both subjects from Metropolitan State College, a master’s in chemistry from the University of Idaho and a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Denver.
For a time he worked in the chemistry department at UD and as a contamination engineer at Lockheed Martin. Following a decade of aerospace engineering, he joined the chemistry faculty at Metropolitan State University, where he later served as an organic chemistry professor.
In 1995, Deacon Barrows entered the diaconate formation program for the Archdiocese of Denver and was ordained a deacon on June 6, 2000. As part of his formation, he served with Jefferson County Jail Catholic Services for a year before being ordained. He served at four Denver parishes for a total of 18 years.
After serving as a Catholic chaplain at the Jefferson County Detention Center, Deacon Barrows retired in 2018 and, with his wife, Darcy, relocated to Buena Vista. He began serving in the Diocese of Colorado Springs and accepted assignment to St. Rose of Lima Parish in Buena Vista to serve the church community and prison ministries.
According to Deacon Cliff Donnelly, Director of Prison and Jail Ministry for the Diocese of Colorado Springs, jail and prison ministries are not the same.
Jail ministry focuses on people transitioning from being charged with a crime, and either serving a lengthy sentence at a Department of Corrections facility or a less lengthy sentence in a community facility or county jail.
By contrast, prison ministry works with offenders whose sentences prohibit them from leaving the correctional facility. Many BVCF offenders are serving life sentences without possibility of parole. So, their faith journey differs from someone residing at a county jail for a short term.
Deacon Barrows used the word “interesting” to describe county jail inmates, whose mindset is different from that of prisoners serving time in a state correctional system.
“Those in the county jails are awaiting arraignment, trial and/or sentencing and have great hopes they will be released soon, found innocent or receive a light sentence,” Deacon Russ said.
“For those in the state correctional system, their ‘fate’ or sentence is known to them and they realize they will spend significant time incarcerated. For many, hope in Jesus quickly wanes, leaving them feeling that God really does not care about them,” he said.
While incarcerated, many inmates spend a fair amount of time praying, he said.
“I was asked by inmates, ‘If I read the entire Bible and say my rosary every day, will God get me out of jail? So for many, their interest in the Catholic faith, or in God, was strongly tied to their wanting to be released soon,” Deacon Barrows said.
Working with inmates is much like working with adults in a parish, Deacon Barrows said. Liturgical, teaching, or catechetical efforts can have a large and noticeable effect on some people, whereas others come and listen, participate, and hopefully enjoy themselves, but whether the outreach has made a lasting impact on them is hard to say.
“With inmates, it is a little easier to see if they are growing closer to God. The reason is that many are of the opinion that God does not like them, or is unconcerned with them, and so, if they are walking with the Lord their attitudes and demeanor are noticeably much better,” Deacon Barrows said.
Deacon Donnelly added, “A deacon’s call is to serve; he is configured to Christ the servant. We have over 120 Catholics at the facility, and he will be a great presence to all of them. Russ is a great addition to the prison ministry team and is doing God’s work in a very difficult environment. He has quickly become an integral servant at the BVCF.”
Deacon Barrows delights in helping inmates realize that God loves them despite their shortcomings. When a person is about to be released and re-enter society, he recommends they find a church and become involved in one of its activities and, through that church, find a spiritual director, deacon or priest who can help them to continue in their relationship with Jesus.
“If I can lead an inmate to a personal and sustainable relationship with God, I feel I have been successful. I look forward to continuing this activity with inmates at BVCF,” Deacon Barrows said.