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Four Rikers Island Inmates Charged In Attack On Correction Officer Face Judge

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Four inmates accused of a brutal attack on a Rikers Island correction officer faced a judge on Monday.

Dozens of correction officers showed support for fellow officer, 39-year-old Jean Roston Souffrant as the four pleaded not guilty. Among the charges are gang assault and harassment.

Prosecutors said 18-year-old Steven Espinal planned the attack in retaliation because the officer had written him up the day before.

Steven Espinal, left, is accused of sucker-punching a correction officer on Rikers Island. Three others are also accused of participating. (credit: CBS2)

"When the the officer slightly let his guard down he viciously punched the officer, knocking him unconscious and causing him to fall against the wall hitting his head," Bronx Assistant District Attorney James Brennan said.

Also arraigned were Devin Burns, Nazeem Francis and Samson Walston, who Brennan says joined in on the melee -- stomping, kicking, and even throwing an object at Souffrant's face.

A judge set bail for Espinal at $500,000, and $300,000 for the other defendants.

All four pleaded not guilty.

Correction Captain Johanna Banks said those charged previously talked on the phone.

"And when they went in the day room, they had a conversation prior to coming out of the day room and they assaulted this officer," she told 1010 WINS' Juliet Papa.

Souffrant remained stable at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens Monday with serious injuries to his spine and neck. CBS2 spoke exclusively through a translator to his father on Sunday.

"We're from Haiti, we are very hardworking people. My son came here, he's a very hardworking person," Raphael Souffrant said. "We're very shocked this happened to him at work because he's supposed to be protected."

Francis was indicted in a previous assault on another correction officer when authorities say he didn't get his meal on time.

There's controversy because of a new policy put in place by Mayor Bill de Blasio not to isolate inmates under 21. The president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association said the attack on Jean Souffrant was a retaliatory measure by suspected members of the Bloods gang who were all under 21, which means under the mayor's mandate are all exempt from punitive segregation at Rikers.

"The mayor knew when he eliminated punitive segregation that he actually declared war on New York City correction officers," said COBA President Elias Husamudeen. "Those officers did their damn job. We just wish that the mayor of this city would do his damn job."

De Blasio spokesperson Natalie Grybauskas said the administration has no intention of changing course.

"It's clear that more solitary doesn't translate to less violence, and can hurt people instead of helping them," the spokesperson said.

Department of Correction Cynthia Brann called the attack "sickening," adding the inmates will be held accountable.

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