When Negotiations Take Advantage of Outsiders

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In March, reporter Rob Wildeboer of Chicago’s WBEZ radio station broke the news that inmates in Cook County prisons (including those in the city of Chicago) were being charged inflated phone rates due to a profit-generating contract between the county and Securus Technologies, the company that operates the jail phone service. The contract requires Securus to pay 57.5% of the revenue from phone calls back to the county, an arrangement that netted the county $12 million from outgoing calls from inmates over the life of the three-year contract.

Much of that money is paid by the largely poor families of inmates, many of whom can’t afford to post bond to free their loved from jail while they are awaiting trial. As a result of the artificially inflated rates, inmates’ family members typically must pay $15 upfront for each collect call they accept. In just one month, inmates made more than 10,000 calls at the flat rate of $15 per call.

“It’s just a rip off,” Marvin Gresham, Sr. told Wildeboer about the hundreds of dollars in phone charges he had paid during his son’s two months in prison. “It’s just a loss, a loss that we didn’t need.” Profits from the calls are not reimbursed to inmates who are later found innocent.

“It just doesn’t seem as though you should be ripping those folks off,” Chicago Alderman Howard Brookins told Wildeboer. “Anybody with a cellular phone and unlimited minutes knows that it doesn’t cost $15 for 15 minutes or a dollar a minute to make a phone call.” According to Brookins, inmates are subjected to numerous fees with no objection from an unsympathetic public. But often, notes Brookins, “Their bills are paid by mothers and grandmothers, and it’s a tremendous burden on them…”

Securus has contracts with a total of 2,200 jails and prisons across the country. According to the Center for Media Justice, eight states have banned revenue-generating jail phone contracts.

In early April, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart said they were reviewing the contract with Securus. According to Wildeboer, both officials have been blaming each other for the contract through spokespeople and have refused to speak in detail about the matter.

In the June issue of the Negotiation newsletter, our cover story “Do Outsiders Have a Voice in Your Negotiation?” describes the common tendency for negotiators, in their rush to create value for themselves and each other,  to ignore the impact of their decisions on those who don’t have a place at the table. As a result, negotiators often fail to live up to their own moral standards and sometimes even break the law. We describe how to avoid this pitfall and conduct more ethical negotiations. As the Cook County-Securus contract illustrates, it is often the most disempowered members of society who are most harmed by inequitable negotiations – all the more reason to ensure that you contracts are fair to insiders and outsiders alike.

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One Response to “When Negotiations Take Advantage of Outsiders”

  • In our mock negotiation; in a recent Negotiation course, I chose to play the role of BP Egypt in the “Return of Egyptian Antiquities” scenario and it worked quite well when I played the trump card as the negotiation reached a stalemeate between the British Museum and Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. It seems BP PLC is the largest single sponsor of the museum and until quite recently, a significant portion of the museum’s board were linked to BP. With $7 B of BP assets tied up in Egypt and BP being the UK’s largest corporate tax payer, it was easy to level the playing field to get the parties’ talking in earnest about resolving the return of antiquities to to Egypt’s new museum in Luxor in exchange for frequent loans of “never before seen pieces” after the new museum’s grand opening. Sometimes, enlisting the support of an outsider helps a negiotiation… I wouldn’t call my role disintersted by any means!

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