COLUMBIA — Thousands of children in South Carolina whose parents are in prison received Christmas gifts this year thanks to the Angel Tree.

Inmates in the state's 28 prisons signed up for the program, which is run by the state chapter of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Gifts were donated by members of more than 250 churches.

About 10,500 children statewide should have received gifts this Christmas, said James Murray, director of the South Carolina chapter of the prison ministry.

Murray spent more than two years behind bars for trafficking cocaine, and the Angel Tree program made sure his daughters received gifts while he was in prison.

"Angel Tree really lifted my spirits on Christmas and let my daughters know even though I was away from them, I was thinking about them despite my poor choices," Murray told The State newspaper of Columbia.

About 64 percent of the 24,616 inmates in South Carolina prisons reported having children, Correction Department spokesman Josh Gelinas said.

"The men and women here at the Department of Corrections are inmates, but they're mothers and fathers too," Gelinas said. "The holidays are a trying time for men and women that are incarcerated."

The Angel Tree also is part of an ongoing effort to minister to the children of inmates and their families, said the Rev. LeVonia Belt, the minister of evangelism and discipleship at Brookland Baptist Church. His church is participating in the program for the second year.

Four families of inmates involved in the program last year invited church members back to tell them about Jesus and later joined the church, Belt said.

"It's a wonderful opportunity," he said.