FWF2020 Q&A: Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom is a FWF2020 panelist on Intersections of the Law.
Fernanda is a writer, editor and lawyer. She has worked as a solicitor in criminal law, family law, child protection law and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory and Queensland. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Art Guide

Is there a moment you recall that shaped your own idea of feminism/what does feminism mean to you?

I was raised by a single mother whose family consisted of her parents, her sisters and her nieces. Although my mother didn’t identify as a feminist, the experiences I had in her care gave me a grounding in feminism in that I was only ever exposed to women’s perspectives.

My mother was incarcerated repeatedly throughout my childhood and as she did not have a partner or close friends, I (young as I was) was her main confidante throughout those years. This gave me a lot of insights into other women’s lives. From a very early age, I was aware of women being subjected to traumatic strip-searches, women being incarcerated after having been the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and the over-representation of Aboriginal women in prisons.

I was home-schooled for part of my education, but when I re-entered school to do VCE, it was at an all-girls school so again I was seeped in women’s perspectives. At that school, I had a very strong feminist English teacher, who was the first person who got me consciously thinking about feminism. The school was proactive about countering popular culture’s messages about body image too. I remember a speaker coming to talk to us about this and totally revolutionising my thinking about my body. Whatever people may say about single-sex education, it was great to have two whole years of not being talked over or sexually harassed!

In your essay you write that court procedures can work to further marginalise women. What is one change you would like to see?

Like so many features of mainstream society, court tends to further marginalise those who are already marginalised. Women, children, the disabled, the non-English speaker, those who live in remote areas.

I can think of plenty of changes that would be great but that are highly unlikely to happen. For instance, a free creche at court so that women do not have to tow their kids around court with them, where they are often kept waiting all day. Legal Aid that was available to all who needed it, rather than only to the very poor. There are a huge number of people who don’t qualify for Legal Aid but are nowhere near being able to afford to privately fund their defence.

Something more realistic that I hope will happen is courts becoming more willing to allow people to attend court events (other than contested hearings) over the phone. It’s something that’s happening a lot more now because of COVID and I imagine, making it easier for women who are the primary carers of children, women who live remotely, or have mobility or transport issues to comply with court attendance requirements.  Of course, COVID is also meaning that a lot of court matters are not getting finalised at the moment, which is absolutely not good for anyone.

At the end of the day though, I think that the court system is patriarchal and it’s unlikely there are any procedural changes that could be made that would de-marginalise women within it.

How connected are the prison industrial complex and the rise in women being incarcerated?

They are one and the same. Since the early 90s, Australia, like some other countries, has been creepingly privatising our prison system. Over the same period, there has been an exponential rise in the incarceration rate, particularly for women and especially Indigenous women.

There is a wealth of research that has demonstrated that prison is counterproductive; that it increases a person’s chances of re-offending, further traumatises and criminalises the disadvantaged and does nothing to assist people to address the issues that led to their offending. Judges and magistrates know this, but they are left in a position of having to sentence people to prison because the system gives them few other options for serious offenders.

We are now pandering to a private sector that profits from perpetuating the cycle of disadvantage and has nothing to gain from providing prison ‘services’ that are conducive to assisting offenders to overcome their problems. Why rehabilitate your customers? You’d be putting yourself out of a job.

Justice reinvestment, the practice of diverting funds away from the criminal justice system and back into the communities that have produced the offenders, creating early intervention programs and other supports aimed to prevent crime has been found to be massively more effective in reducing a whole range of types of offending than prison, but justice reinvestment has not been taken up on a big scale. Why? Firstly, because it’s a hard sell. It’s much easier to get the simplistic tough-on-crime approach into a sound bite. Secondly, because maintaining the cycle of crime and punishment maintains the status quo and the class divide. We know how to fix these problems, but governments are choosing not to fix them.

Book recommendations Eggshell Skull, Bri Lee
See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, Jess Hill
Are Prisons Obsolete Angela Y. Davis

Online recommendations
Beyond Prisons — podcast on prison abolition that elevates the voices of people directly impacted by the system.
Birds Eye view— podcast made with women in the Darwin Correctional Centre

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