HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia's largest jail is removing barriers between guards and prisoners, aiming to decrease violence at the 17-year-old facility.

Officers at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility will spend their shift among inmates in common areas, rather than doing rounds and watching them on video monitors, after a $6.8-million renovation.

Tim Carroll, the senior superintendent at the Dartmouth jail, said the system creates trust and discourages poor behaviour by prisoners.

"It allows for a greater interaction between the inmates and the staff," he told reporters during a tour Tuesday, as he stood in the freshly painted unit that will house the new system.

"It reduces the number of incidents or conflicts ... It reduces the severity of those conflicts and it reduces the length of those conflicts."

The jail has suffered from a poor reputation over the past decade, with regular reports of drug smuggling, severe prison beatings and deaths due to opiate overdoses.

The so-called direct supervision system at the jail -- often called "Burnside" -- is based on similar models used around the continent over the past 50 years.

However, Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said in an interview that morale is low among guards over the new system.

He argues more staff are needed to ensure safety, both for assessment of inmates and emergency response units if there is a flare-up in a unit.

"We have a chronic case of lack of staff at all facilities. Overtime has been rising at all facilities," he said.

He also said the union has had to pressure the government to put in proper exits for guards and other safety measures in the new system.

"What we have are offenders who don't want to be in there, and their only way to get out is to act out and that results in feces or urine being thrown on an officer, or they may assault an officer," said MacLean.

Carroll said he's working with the union on staff ratios. The superintendent said one model would envision one officer on the unit at a time, with a second available to escort inmates to other parts of the prison.

He said training on how to de-escalate potential violence through talking to angry inmates has been provided.

In addition, the superintendent said there is "state of the art technology" such as pepper-ball systems that can fire a pepper-spray capsule into a unit if violence erupts.

Meanwhile, the province is installing body scanners to help stem the flow of illicit drugs into the jail, which sees a steady flow of inmates being kept in custody before court appearances, serving short sentences or awaiting transfer to federal penitentiaries.

Chief Supt. John Scoville said the expectation is that body scanners will result in a "drastic decrease" in the amount of contraband entering the prison, and this can help reduce the violence associated with the prison drug trade

The renovation of the prison's north wing is expected to be completed in June.

Carroll said a similar project will take place in the prison's west wing over the following five months, and then there will be a pause to assess how the new program is working.

Prior to the opening of the Northeast Nova facility in Pictou, N.S., supervisors had said the Halifax jail was frequently at its capacity, with large numbers of inmates double bunked.

Scoville estimated that there are currently 220 inmates at the jail, with about 160 to 170 men and 60 to 70 women -- well below capacity.