The term “a well-earned rest” is rather hackneyed and overused. However, the news that Nevil Knell has retired after 28 years as a Prison Fellowship volunteer (and reaching a birthday with an ‘0’ at the end) gives new life to the term.
Back in about 1987 Nevil saw an advertisement in ‘New Life’ and as a person who loved to volunteer he saw this as a new mission opportunity. A meeting with the then Director, Reg Worthy, at Prison Fellowship’s headquarters in Ivanhoe led to Nevil’s starting with us in 1988.
Nevil’s main activity has been regular prison visiting, most recently at Port Phillip, but he has wide ranging involvement. He remembers that in his early days he headed down to Barwon and with Liz van Dreven, where he spoke with inmates about relationships and parenting. He was also involved with the debating society that then ran there. He comments: “Anyone who thinks that all prisoners are dumb is way off the mark! They were good debates.”
For many years, Nevil and his wife, Gloria, have sent hand-made Christmas cards to prisoners, and also post cards from their travels. So important were these to some prisoners with whom Nevil had built a close and real friendship, that they still have cards sent 7 years ago!
As well as his weekly visit at Port Phillip, Nevil (often with Gloria’s help) could be relied on to “fill in”. Among many other things, he supplied transport for people (particularly children) to visit loved ones; assisted families to move from one location to another; visited ex-prisoners to encourage and assist; made special “professional visits” to see inmates who had moved from Port Phillip; assisted with Angel Tree delivery and biscuit distribution; and, attended court with people who needed support.
Nevil vividly remembers starting dressmaking and leatherwork courses at Port Phillip many years ago. “For the dressmaking I would bring in a range of dressing gown patterns for the participants to select the design they liked. Sample swatches of material were then obtained, material selected and the course commenced.
“The participants would pin the paper sleeve, front, back etc. to the material and cut around the edge. I would take these cut outs home where Gloria, my wife, would do the sewing. I would bring in these sewn items next week into prison and the process would continue. Talk about the blind leading the blind – only Gloria knew what was happening!”
“I well remember one inmate who completed his dressing gown. He had selected a beautiful Chinese dragon as his cloth. He walked and strutted around the unit like a proud peacock wearing his dressing gown. Shortly afterwards the prisoner was released and he went home with his dressing gown. His mother rang me later so excited and exclaiming “This is the first thing my son has commenced and completed”
“Shortly afterwards all our safety protocols were breached. A prisoner chased another prisoner around the unit wanting to impale OUR scissors in his back. Needless to say that was the end of the dressmaking and leatherwork programs in Port Phillip Prison.”
Nevil believes that Prison Fellowship visitors are highly valued by prisoners and that relationships built up are vital for inmates. This means that prison visiting ministry is for the long haul, and once a prisoner sees you coming back time and time again there is an opportunity for trust to build and conversations to become deeper and more personal. Visitors are trusted. He believes that even if he had been at the Metropolitan Remand Centre during the riots he would have been quite safe – that’s how much Prison Fellowship visitors are valued.