Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soros Gives $12M for Fight Against TB in Prisons

Billionaire philanthropist George Soros is leading a hunt for tens of millions in aid dollars to add to the $12 million he has already given to fight tuberculosis in Russia's cash-strapped prisons, a boon made all the more welcome by the delay of a much-needed amnesty for elderly and sick inmates.

"I have calculated, and I don't want to anticipate too much, but I think these [new aid] funds will be very significant," Vladimir Yalunin, head of the national prison system, said at a press conference Friday. He is hoping for as much as $60 million.

Soros' Open Society Institute has already granted $12 million over three years to treat tuberculosis in prisons, of which under half has already been spent, said Alex Goldfarb, who runs the Public Health Research Institute which administers Soros' anti-TB programs in Russia.

The Hungarian-born U.S. businessmen agreed to help Russia's prisons find more aid after a meeting with Yalunin in New York in February, the prison boss said. Yalunin said that if $60 million in new aid was forthcoming, it would equal about half what Russia needs to feed, clothe and treat the country's 100,000 tuberculosis-infected inmates.

Soros and his foundation "are currently in the process of forming a broad coalition of interested agencies from private sources. That would be possible to fund a program of that magnitude," Goldfarb said.

Yalunin is also presenting plans to the Council of Europe, and he expects potential donors to gather in September in New York.

The good news about new efforts on Soros' part was somewhat soured by announcements that an amnesty aimed at reducing the overcrowding that helps spread the disease among inmates had been postponed.

The Justice Ministry's planned quick fix - freeing 94,000 elderly, sick and petty criminals - has been bogged down by red tape and will not be implemented until April or May, Yalunin said.

Law enforcement agencies have decreased the number of prisoners to be released, and thebureaucrats have been haggling over who should qualify.

"It's an argument about categories, not an argument about the amnesty itself," said Yury Kalinin, a deputy justice minister appearing at Friday's press conference.

Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov - whose ministry took over running the prisons last September - said in December that more than 100,000 inmates would be freed in the first months of 1999. In order not to fill the space vacated by amnestied prisoners, the Justice Ministry is pressing to replace jail time for petty crimes with fines, suspended sentences, and public service.

Any delay in reducing Russia's prison population is a blow to those fighting the spread of tuberculosis.

"The best way to stop the TB epidemic in Russia is to put less people behind bars," Goldfarb said.

Tuberculosis reached genuine epidemic proportions over the past five years as overcrowded prison cells served as incubators for the disease.

"The epidemic level is 100 new cases per 100,000 population," Goldfarb said. "In Russia the level is 75, but in the prison system, it's 3,000. It's not just an epidemic, it's a disaster."