TROY, Va. (AP) _ Her hair styled neatly and makeup brightening her face, Lovetta Osby turned to the camera to wish her children happy holidays and tell them she would be home soon.

``Hi sweetheart, it's mom,'' she began. ``I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and tell you I'm sorry I couldn't be there again.''

Then came the tears.

Ms. Osby, a 29-year-old inmate at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, reached for a tissue. Then she fought through the rest of her videotaped message, reading a poem to her children, ages 10, 9, and 2.

Ms. Osby, who's serving her third prison term for drug-related offenses, and dozens of other inmates recorded messages Monday for their relatives with the help of professional videographer volunteers.

``We figured we would need three boxes of tissues,'' said Randy Shipe, education director at Fluvanna, about 15 miles east of Charlottesville.

In one room of the prison, about 50 inmates selected by lottery from nearly 200 applicants were given a makeover before the tapings. Each inmate had 15 minutes to speak, but a few took just moments. Some looked into the camera; others read from prepared remarks.

Ms. Osby is relatively fortunate _ she's set for release Dec. 29. But many won't be so lucky. Nationwide, more than 80 percent of female prisoners have children under 18. Many have lost custody or visitation rights, or are incarcerated too far away to see their children regularly.

``There was a woman today who hadn't seen her child in five years,'' said Carolyn LeCroy, founder of the group Women in Transition, which ran the videotaping project in conjunction with the prison. ``Five years _ because of distance. The caretaker can't get them here. It gives me goosebumps to think about that.''

Ms. LeCroy understands the pain. She once spent a Christmas in prison herself.

``Everybody gets depressed, no matter what kind of front you try to put on,'' she recalled. ``I cried all day.''

Ms. LeCroy tried something similar at a Henrico County jail for Mother's Day, and tried to get permission at Fluvanna, a new women's prison that houses about 900 prisoners. But clearance didn't come until a few weeks ago.

With the help of some contributors, Ms. LeCroy picked up the tab for the project, which she believes is a first in the country.

``This is the best gift they can give me,'' said 26-year-old Sabrina Hyman of Richmond, who lost visitation rights to her 6-year-old daughter, Courtney, for six months. This is her first Christmas behind bars after being convicted in a cocaine case.

``Hi Courtney, this is mommy,'' she said. ``I love you and I miss you, and I wish I could be there at Christmas time, but unfortunately mommy can't. ... I'm sorry I can't be there with you at a time that you need me.''

``Having children of my own, I can't imagine not being with them,'' said Phyllis Baskerville, the prison's assistant warden for housing and programs.

The average female inmate has two children, Shipe said, which would mean there are 3,000 to 3,500 children with mothers behind bars in Virginia.

``This is a personal gift from the mother,'' said Ms. LeCroy. ``It's something these children can put in that VCR, and they can see their mother anytime they want or need.''