Our Institutions Are Still Failing Sex Workers

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Last Thursday, 23-year-old Donna Castleberry, a mother and sex worker, was shot eight times by an undercover police officer in Columbus, OH. The police officer, Andrew Mitchell, shot Castleberry when she stabbed him in the hand in the back of his unmarked car. Castleberry later died in the hospital. Mitchell was hospitalized for his wound and later released.

A judge issued a warrant for Castleberry’s arrest last Tuesday, after she failed to appear in court for a misdemeanor soliciting charge. Police say that Mitchell was taking Castleberry into custody and acted in self-defense.


“The last thing that she said was ‘I’ll be home mommy,’ and I believed she would’ve had she had the chance,” Castleberry’s mother, Michelle Dalton, told local station Fox28.

The Columbus Dispatch reported on the shooting:

Columbus Division of Police spokeswoman Denise Alex-Bouzounis said... other undercover vice officers had gone to Mitchell’s unmarked car on South Yale Avenue when the situation occurred late Thursday morning. Police didn’t give more details about what happened. Castleberry and Mitchell had been in the police vehicle and had a conversation before the stabbing and shooting.


This is pretty much all we know. But the lack of details hasn’t stopped some outlets from reporting on the circumstances of Castleberry’s life and death.

The Columbus affiliate NBC 4i covered a vigil held for Castleberry by family and friends. For some reason, they decided to interview Esther Flores, a local activist from the group 1DivineLine2Health, a nonprofit that provides “Christ-centered care” for “victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, and injustice.”

“I wish I could tell you that the women are just selling themselves but it’s not that,” Flores told the reporter. “The dope dealers they know that they can get the women hooked on [drugs].”

So far, there is no evidence that Castleberry was trafficked, or that she used drugs. Yet NBC allowed Flores to make these statements without any rebuttal.


Earlier this year, Congress passed a law, known as SESTA/FOSTA, that has been decried by sex workers advocates across the country. The law allows states attorneys to hold liable the owners of websites that “unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.” This led to the shutdown of the popular classifieds website Backpage, which many sex workers used to advertise and promote themselves.

Since then, advocates have organized against SESTA/FOSTA, which they say is putting sex workers lives at risk by taking away the tools that sex workers use to vet their clients, giving pimps more power, and bringing the sex trade back to the streets.


Would Castleberry have entered the unmarked car if she was still able to meet her clients online? It’s impossible to know. But some evidence suggests that since the enactment of SESTA/FOSTA, deaths like hers have become more likely.

But this specific legislation aside, Castleberry’s death exemplifies how criminalizing sex work hurts the people it is supposed to protect. Had she worked in a country where her profession was legal, she never would have been charged with a misdemeanor or issued a warrant. There would be no reason for her to end up in Mitchell’s car. She might still be alive today.