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Jailed immigrant was taken off suicide watch

Salvadoran immigrant Ana Romero Rivera had been removed from a suicide watch at the recommendation of mental health officials a day before she hung herself in a cell last year, according to newly released jail records. The August 2008 death of Romero, 44, in the Franklin County Regional Jail has been the subject of several investigations, and the case has become a rallying point for Central Kentucky immigration reform advocates.

The documents, obtained by the Herald-Leader through an open records request, provide a detailed explanation of what happened to Romero in the last hours of her life. She was found hanging Aug. 21. by a bedsheet in her cell and was pronounced dead early the next day.

The reports reveal that Romero's mental condition declined when federal immigration officials delayed her deportation because they brought the wrong documents to the jail when they came to pick her up.

She wanted to be deported to El Salvador to see her sick mother, according to a mental health report written the day before she died.

At 6:45 a.m. Aug. 20, consultants from a Lexington-based mental health crisis network for jails spoke with jail staff by telephone and determined that Romero was depressed and at a high risk of suicide.

"She has been crying and refusing food for 48 hours and also making herself vomit," the mental health report said. The behavior began after immigration officials told Romero that it would be two more weeks before they would return to get her.

At 7 a.m. that day, jail officials put Romero in a special cell and removed her bedsheet and anything else she could use to commit suicide. She was observed every 15 minutes.

But, by that afternoon, a mental health professional said she was at low risk to commit suicide, and she was placed in a regular cell.

She was found hanging at 11:14 p.m. the next day.

Romero "was on her knees at the foot of her bunk," a jail report said. She positioned herself on a lower bunk, extended a white sheet above her through a hole in the top bunk and tied it around her neck.

The mental health professionals involved work for the Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation board. Shannon Ware, executive director of the board, said Romero was interviewed in person by an experienced therapist with an interpreter for more than an hour on the day she died.

Romero assured the therapist she did not want to commit suicide, Ware said, she just wanted to go home. Ware said that after dissecting her agency's actions, she found no problems.

Franklin County Jailer Billy Roberts did not return a telephone call Monday.

The documents show that the State Department has been investigating the case to ensure that the Franklin County Jail is in compliance with policies on arrests, detentions and deaths of foreign national citizens. State Department officials could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Congress has recently demanded that more information be made public about the dozens of deaths of immigrants awaiting deportation in U.S. jails and prisons..

Investigations by Franklin County Coroner Will Harrod, Franklin County Attorney Rick Sparks and Franklin Commonwealth's Attorney Larry Cleveland have found no wrongdoing on the part of Franklin County jail officials. But Cleveland said Monday that he will check to see whether the jail has improved its communications with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) so those awaiting deportation are picked up in a timely manner.

Freddy Peralta, president of the Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said that immigration officials who failed to remove Romero from the jail in a timely manner bear responsibility for what happened to her.

"She was not supposed to be in jail when she died," he said.

Romero came to Kentucky from El Salvador more than three years ago and had ignored one previous order to voluntarily go back to El Salvador.

She was arrested Jan. 14, 2008, by state police after giving federal immigration officials a false identification card and spent several months in jail. Romero agreed to her deportation on Aug. 7 as part of a guilty plea in federal court.

Agencies have been disagreeing on who had federal oversight for Romero at the time of her death.

The documents shed some light on that issue: U.S. Marshals in the Eastern District of Kentucky released Romero to ICE for deportation on Aug. 7, 2008, an order provided by the jail shows. Under federal regulations, she should have been picked up for deportation within 48 hours or released.

ICE officials have not offered any explanation of why Romero was not sent back home sooner.

Gail Montenegro, a spokeswoman for ICE, said on Monday that when it came to the agency's attention that Romero remained in custody at the jail, it made arrangements to take her into custody on Aug. 22. Romero died before that happened.