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Incarcerated moms get to spend a special Christmas day with their children

Moms all across Ohio will wake up tomorrow morning and give their children big Christmas hugs. They'll watch as their little ones tear open presents. Later they'll dine on turkey and ham. But for some Ohio mothers their Christmas came earlier and was much less conventional. WOSU's Mandie Trimble spent part of a Saturday morning earlier this month at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. There she witnessed what Christmas is like for moms behind bars.

Christmas at 1479 Collins Avenue in Marysville is not what one might consider typical. Twinkling lights do not illuminate any trees in the yard. No one dons gaudy holiday sweaters. And the stockings, well, they weren't hung by the chimney with care. That's because 1479 Collins Avenue is the address for the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

It's about 10 a.m. and Christmas music spills from the prison's gymnasium speakers.

Beautiful and elaborate winter wonderland scenes, painted by inmates, hang on the walls to give the ordinary gym a holiday look. A CD player, milk and juice cartons and bingo cards are some of the things scattered on the table where Alice Torres and her family sit.

"Today I have my mother and my sister, her daughter, and my two sons," Torres said.

33-year-old Torres was sentenced to eight years in prison for three felony counts of drug possession. She's been at ORW since 2005. And this is the second year her sons, Eloy, five, and Rafael, seven, have celebrated Christmas with their mom amid razor wire and armed guards. But that does not seem to hinder anyone from enjoying Moms and Kids Christmas day.

About 30 of the prison's moms get to spend nine hours with their children and family playing games like bingo, making arts and crafts and enjoying lunch together.

"It is so special. Literally, even the week coming to the event, it makes you feel like when you are at home preparing for Christmas," Torres said.

Elizabeth Wright is the warden's assistant. She said this event started about ten years ago to help preserve the bond between mothers and their children. But she said the program was expanded to some offenders who do not have children.

"It was created for offenders who have children. But we recognized that there was needs for some ladies that do not have children also to be able to participate in a special visiting event like this," Wright said.

Torres normally gets to see her sons once a month, but it's in a much more controlled setting. She does not get to hold them as much and the boys can't run around and play. But this day she said when they first saw her they ran and jumped in her arms. And her youngest son, Eloy, sang her a new song he'd learned.

Torres misses out on getting to watch her sons grow both physically and cognitively. But she says being able to see them in a relaxed setting like the Moms and Kids Christmas helps. Torres' youngest son, Eloy, seems to be a happy little boy even though he only gets to see him mom a dozen or so times a year. And he's quite outgoing. When it time for everyone to play bingo Eloy decided the bingo workers needed some additional help.

In the midst of all the commotion of the games, laughter and snacks some may forget that the day will have to come to an end. Torres said it's very sad to have to watch her sons leave.

"Right now I have to rely on God to give me peace in my heart that everything is OK and to be very grateful for the opportunity of being with them today. The tears that follow up with them I have to hand over to my," Torres said.

Her sister, Lily Ceballos, said although the visits can be emotionally challenging on everyone, especially the boys, they wouldn't miss it for anything. And while Ceballos said she relishes the time she gets to see her sister, she said it's much more important for Eloy and Rafael.

"I can not really give them what she is to them, you know. And for me to be able at least give that little bit of time with their mom, I mean, it's all I can do," Ceballos said.

Torres' release date is August 6, 2013. She's hoping for an early release in 2009 that's part of a plea agreement. Torres said she never had the courage to leave the abuse marriage that she says is part of the reason she's in prison today. But she said being incarcerated has truly benefited her.

"I won't say prison is the best place in the world, but for someone whose life was not going in the right direction it's the best of the lesser evils should I say. But I am very grateful. When I see the judge again and he releases me I'm going to thank him because now I feel when I leave here I will be a better mother, a better sister, a better daughter and a better human being overall," Torres said.