On a Tuesday afternoon in April, Latisha and two of her daughters, ages eleven and thirteen, are preparing a feast. The sticky-sweet smell of vanilla frosting for a box cake mixes with the spice of the Lowry’s seasoning Latisha has sprinkled over a tray of French fries. It all gets crowded into the oven with a frozen pepperoni pizza.

It’s a lot of food for the three of them, but they aren’t really cooking to eat—though that doesn’t stop the girls from sneaking tastes of frosting. They’re cooking because, for three hours once a month, they can.

Before she entered the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh in 2016, Latisha hated cooking (Department of Public Safety officials asked that her last name not be used). With five kids, it was work, like doing the girls’ hair every morning.

“Now I love cooking,” she says. “Now I’m like, ‘I need some hair bows.’”

They’re able to have this time together because of a nonprofit program only offered at NCCIW, Mothers and Their Children, or MATCH, which affords women with at least a seven-year prison sentence and a record of good behavior extended visits with their kids. Unlike regular prison visits, the children don’t have to be accompanied by an adult and can freely interact with their mother in a sort of apartment on the NCCIW campus outfitted with games, a TV, and a kitchen. MATCH participants—there are thirty-six in the coveted program—also take parenting classes.

The visits give Latisha something to look forward to while awaiting her 2025 release date. In anticipation of the girls’ visit, she says she redid her hair five times.

“No day of the month matters but this day,” she says. “If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know how I’d make it in here.”

On a single day in late January, nearly six hundred women in North Carolina prisons reported being the mothers of children under eighteen—and many, like Latisha, will spend Mother’s Day incarcerated. Nationally, about 62 percent of women in prison are mothers, about half of them primary caregivers. And with women making up the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, their number is rising.

Though women account for a small percentage of those locked up in North Carolina prisons, since 2009 their numbers have grown by 19 percent, compared with a 1 percent change in the men’s prison population, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative. A 2011 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that about 8 percent of North Carolina children had a parent who has been incarcerated.

“The misconception is that folks go off to jail or prison, they’re lousy people, they’re lousy parents, and they made lousy choices, they’re done,” says Melissa Radcliff, program director for Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center, a Durham-based organization that works with the children of incarcerated parents. “No. Actually, there are lots of folks who are trying to be parents and kids who want to have that relationship, so what can we do support each end?”

The incarceration of a parent can have both economic and emotional effects on a family, says Radcliff. Families may need to move, downsize, or take on additional work because of lost income. For children, it can be an isolating experience, especially during holidays that revolve around family activities.

The last Mother’s Day Latisha recalls before her incarceration, her children brought her a bright, Technicolor daisy from Walmart. During a visit last weekend, this time with cinnamon rolls on the menu, the girls said they didn’t remember that.

“I wouldn’t want to remember Mother’s Day if my mom wasn’t around,” Latisha says. She didn’t see her family for Mother’s Day last year because she wasn’t in the MATCH program.

Mother’s Day is a time of mixed emotions around the NCCIW, which houses about sixteen hundred women. Women who didn’t celebrate Mother’s Day prior to their incarceration may not think much about it, says Vernice Whyms, the social-work supervisor for MATCH. For others, it’s a reminder of relationships they’re missing now or shirked before they entered prison.

“Most people are waiting for mail the whole week,” Latisha says.

Latisha says MATCH has changed her approach to parenting, and although she’s separated from her children, in some ways they’re growing closer. Because their time together is limited, she notices the traits she and her daughters share and is more attuned to their moods, which in different circumstances might seem like typical adolescent angst. Both girls live with Latisha’s mother near Fayetteville now.

“You can’t relate to your friends because their mom is there,” says the thirteen-year-old, who remembers sneaking into her mom’s truck when she would go to the store just to spend some time alone with her. “You can’t trust anybody or talk to anybody.”

They relish the opportunity for some privacy and tenderness, holding hands or leaning on their elbows on the kitchen counter to talk. By contrast, in a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, about half of mothers in state prisons said they’d never had a personal visit and less than 15 percent reported having a visit at least once a month.

“Sometimes I just sit and watch like, wow, they’re growing up so fast and I’m missing it, but I try to not stay too long in that moment,” Latisha says. “There is nothing and nobody that is going to stop me from having this.”

Although other prison-based programs give incarcerated parents time with their children, MATCH is unique in the normalcy and intimacy it affords those interactions. The program also provides transportation for children to get to visits (they travel an average of 125 miles each way, according to MATCH). For those who live too far from Raleigh to drive, MATCH flies them in once per year and pays for their lodging.

But the twenty-four-year-old nonprofit is limited by funding, which comes from grants and donations; in 2016, according to tax records, it garnered $65,900 in grants and contributions, down from $96,355 the year before. With more money, it could bring more women into the program and bring out-of-state children for more visits.

The moms also get to participate in a book club and cooking classes. Next Thursday, they’ll have a Mother’s Day celebration; children can’t attend, but the women will be treated to gifts, dinner, and a comedy show.

“They are all good moms,” says Stephanie Dixon, MATCH’s director. “It’s just the situation they’re in here, but I think what keeps them going is that they are moms.”

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at swillets@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.