Year of Publication



Arts and Sciences


Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies

Research Mentor

Carol Street


According to the US Commission of Civil Rights, from 1980 to 2016, the percentage of imprisoned women surpassed 730% (4). Severe isolation, lack of sunlight, and sensory deprivation tactics were employed during the 1980s, when Silvia Baraldini and Laura Whitehorn were incarcerated at the federal women’s prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Both women maintained their basic humanity and spirit by creating educational opportunities for fellow inmates, advocating for improved conditions, and sharing their experiences through letter writing. They each wrote hundreds of letters to friends, family, and other social activists concerned with their plight. Using a collection of letters written by Baraldini and Whitehorn, dating from 1987 to 2000, now part of the Kate Black Social Activism Papers at the University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center, this research will explore the work, activity, and mental health of these women during their incarceration. While Whitehorn was mainly concerned with health education, especially regarding the burgeoning health crisis of HIV and AIDS, Baraldini’s advocacy focused on reform of current incarceration tactics, like the High Security Unit in the Lexington prison. Because of Baraldini’s efforts, with support from Amnesty International, the High Security Unit at Lexington’s Federal Correctional Institution was shut down in 1988. This research relates Baraldini and Whitehorn’s activism to studies on how prison systems treat women prisoners differently than male prisoners, whether they receive more extreme punishments, and the nature of those punishments. In light of the current prison system, Baraldini and Whitehorn offer examples of how women maintain their humanity while incarcerated.


Laura M. Cuevas Meléndez is a student of the Departments of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies and Hispanic Studies.

This research poster was accepted by the National Conference on Undergraduate Research 2020 and the University of Kentucky Showcase of Undergraduate Scholars 2020.