Out of prison, man hews to the straight and narrow
BRATTLEBORO — For one local man who spent nearly four years in prison, staying on the straight and narrow is a matter of keeping faith in God and in himself.
"Whenever I feel discouraged, I say a prayer to Jesus Christ," said Salahdin "Sal" Trowell, who turns 35 in May. "Compared to his trials and tribulations, I've got an easy path."
Trowell ended up in prison after two women were abducted from the Flat Street entrance of the Brattleboro Transportation Center on May 23, 2013. He was accused of orchestrating that kidnapping in an attempt to find a man who owed him a drug debt. The women escaped, unharmed, a short time later when the Cadillac Escalade they were riding in was stopped by police on Western Avenue.
Windham County Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown argued that Trowell's past showed that "he has the power and the ability to influence what people do. He brought the same culture that he learned in New Jersey to Vermont."
Trowell, during an interview at a coffee shop on Main Street on Monday, admitted he has used his charisma to influence people in negative ways. But while he was behind bars, he realized he could use that charisma to be a positive role model for his own children, his brothers and youth in the Brattleboro area. Part of that process is unabashedly admitting to making mistakes.
"I am taking ownership. I had to decide what I want for my life, and it's not telling my story from my cell," he said.
Trowell has a criminal record that starts in the 1990s, when he was growing up. In the Brattleboro case, a jury found him guilty on charges of kidnapping and assault and robbery, and he served 44 months in jail on a 5-to-20 year sentence. He was released early for good conduct, but is on parole for the next 15 years. He is living at Phoenix House in Brattleboro.
"I have rehabilitated myself," Trowell told the Reformer. "I utilized the tools I learned while I was inside, but I had to change for myself. If I change for anyone else I will relapse. You can never do it for other people."
Despite his steadfast faith in God and his own ability to atone for his past, Trowell knows he can't do it on his own. He finds support at Agape Christian Fellowship on Canal Street.
"It's incredibly important to find a sense of community and a place of belonging," said Pastor Bryan Gantt, "particularly when you've been through jail. That's something that puts you at odds with the community. It's important to find that place where you can get that support."
But perhaps what is more important for men like Trowell, said Gantt, "is to be a man who stands up and takes responsibility for his actions, his life and his future."
Trowell, who grew up in Jersey City, N.J., said a person can't change the conditions they were raised in, but they can step up and take responsibility for who they were and who they want to be. "I refuse to let my past hold me back," he said. Trowell said he's been learning how to be a responsible man as a participant in Agape's Knights of the 21st Century program.
According to its website — k21.men — the Knights of the 21st Century is a Bible-based men's ministry program that "strives to help men strengthen themselves, hold each other to a higher standard, love and lead their families as Christ would and fight to change the world."
"We build relationships with each other. We build a bond of trust," said Jeff Smith, who facilitates the program at Agape. "This brings out what many are dealing with drugs, pornography, alcohol, anger, marriage issues ... or all of the above."
Smith said he met Trowell three months ago. "We were in church and the pastor made a call for people to stand up and pray. I saw him standing alone and it seemed he had a lot of weight on his shoulders and I prayed with him."
Trowell joined the Knights, which is open to the public and meets every Monday night at 6 p.m. at Agape.
"Sal is very open and very honest," said Smith. "He is not trying to hide anything. Sal didn't hold back. From the first meeting he talked about himself, his issues and his regret. One of the goals of the Knights is raising the bar on yourself. Sal did just that. I am really proud of him, but I have also cautioned him to stay true to your convictions. There is a lot out there that can tempt you to go the wrong way."
"The negatives will always be there," said Trowell. "People judge me but I have to stay on task. I've got children watching me."
Trowell said when he's feeling especially vulnerable, he goes to Outer Limits to lift weights, or he writes poetry.
Dan Tardie, of Brattleboro, also participates in the Knights program. Tardie, who works at Abbiati Memorials on South Main Street, often sees Trowell on his way to Outer Limits for his daily workout routine. "On his way he stops in to talk. From what I can see, he genuinely wants to change. He has kept all his promises and seems to be doing well."
Trowell recently won a body building contest that was held at the Latchis Theatre and he is attending the Community College of Vermont, working on a business degree so he can start his own gym or juice bar some day. He also would like to do more as a youth mentor and working with addicts.
"I am committed to Brattleboro," he said. "I don't want to run away. Brattleboro has changed my life for the better."
Trowell said he moved to Brattleboro to be closer to family and he has seen how the drug problem in town has gotten worse over the years. He also acknowledges his activities prior to being arrested contributed to that increase. By staying in Brattleboro, acknowledging his crimes and maybe working with troubled youth, he hopes he can make amends to the community.
"It's OK to change and let down your facade," said Trowell. "It's OK to be a regular person."
Shortly after he was released, and while he was beating the streets looking for a job, Trowell met his current girlfriend, Amy Jones, at Outer Limits.
"Sal is a great man," said Jones. "He has good ethics, drive and ambition. He is really passionate about what he wants in life."
Trowell said Jones told him to keep his chin up while he was looking for a job and having doors slammed in his face. He admitted it was hard finding a job straight out of prison. "It was very difficult, considering my past. You have to be willing to accept rejection. It was hard, but I did what I had to do."
Eventually he did find a job, as a floater at Vermont Bread Company on Cotton Mill Hill.
"I didn't even know he had spent time in jail when I met him," said Terri Poulin, his supervisor. Since he started there in January, she said, Trowell has "taken up every task" and done it well. "I look forward to working with him every day."
Trowell said one of the things that keeps him on the straight and narrow is his 10-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son, both of whom still live in New Jersey. He also holds the memory of his father — who died while Trowell was in prison — in his heart. "I want to make him proud," said Trowell, who admitted he still has a long way to go.
"This path is a marathon," he said.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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