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Toronto South staff said at least 26 windows had been broken in the facility and that at one point they were advised to wear shard-resistant goggles to mitigate the safety threat.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario is paying to replace 1,700 windows at its new flagship prison after inmates broke several panes and, in at least one case, weaponized the shards – one of a series of potentially dangerous growing pains that have plagued the country's second-largest jail and compelled hundreds of staff to apply for transfers.

Toronto South Detention Centre, which opened its cells to inmates 20 months ago, has been afflicted by malfunctioning cell doors, poorly placed smoke detectors and tricky computer hardware, according to staff and a list of more than 27 formal employee complaints compiled by the Ontario Ministry of Labour for The Globe and Mail.

"This place was supposed to be a shining example of the future of corrections in this province," said NDP corrections critic Jennifer French. "Instead, we've had very costly problem after very costly problem."

A replacement for the aging Toronto Don and Toronto West jails, the South was touted as a model for both correctional facilities and public-private partnerships in Ontario. In media tours, jail representatives described the complex as a cutting-edge institution with award-winning architecture, top-notch health-care facilities and a progressive supervision model that would benefit staff and inmates alike.

Ontario is locked into a 30-year, $1.1-billion contract with Integrated Team Solutions to build and maintain the structure, which, at 67,000 square metres, is slightly larger than the Air Canada Centre.

Integrated Team Solutions is a consortium of builders and financial backers led by EllisDon and Fengate Capital.

But the consortium's contractual obligation apparently did not extend to the installation of unbreakable windows. Under pressure, the panes – officials declined to say where they are located – have been found to shatter into "small, harmless pieces" like automobile safety glass, according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Now, roughly one in five of the building's windows will be replaced with unbreakable polycarbonate sheets. The province will shoulder the cost.

A spokesperson for the consortium's project manager, EllisDon, referred all questions to the province.

In an e-mailed response, ministry spokesman Brent Ross said that "as the original windows met the requirements to maintain the safety and security of inmates, staff, and the institution and were not defective, the costs for the new windows will be covered through the Ministry's contingency fund for major projects."

Mr. Ross didn't elaborate on how the panes were broken, but said the work is being done to "reduce the possibility of inmate vandalism and better ensure the safety and security of both staff and inmates." The cost of the replacement won't be known until a final bid is chosen. He acknowledged the jail's growing pains, but said "all products used or installed in our facilities are designed and tested to maintain the safety and security of inmates, staff and the institution."

Sources among Toronto South staff told The Globe that at least 26 windows had been broken and that at one point they were advised to wear shard-resistant goggles to mitigate the safety threat.

One staffer spoke on the condition of anonymity about a window-related incident that sent a scare through the institution several months ago. An inmate loosened the bolts fastening a food slot to his cell door, the source said. He used the bolts to break his window and crush the glass into a dust. When staff received a tip the inmate planned to blow the powdered glass into a guard's eyes, they moved and searched the inmate, but, according to the source, the glass was never recovered.

The glass was identified as a potential hazard as long ago as July 16, 2014, when an employee refused to work because an inmate had kicked and shattered a pane, according to a complaint made to the Ministry of Labour. Staff made at least two other complaints to the ministry, including one that specifically identified "shards" of glass on the floor from broken windows.

"We've never heard of glass breaking anywhere else, at any other institution," said Sheldon Small, a guard and vice-president of the union chapter representing Toronto South guards, Local 5112 of OPSEU, which is currently negotiating a collective agreement with the province. "Our place is probably the only jail where staff would look forward to going on strike. We can stay out until they build us a real jail. This one's already falling apart."

The morale problem is pressing. Of 470 guards working at Toronto South, 260 have applied for transfers, according to the union. The current employee complement is only robust enough to operate half the complex, and even then there have been continual lockdowns owing to staffing shortages. The province has vowed to fill the void with an additional 300 hires for Toronto South before the end of the year.

"People will only work so long in this environment before they decide to move on and try something else," Local 5112 president Rodger Noakes said.

Part of the difficulty rests with an innovative computer system that operates doors, televisions, ventilation, intercoms and other mechanisms. All these functions are controlled by central touch-screen terminals. But that centralized control means that one relatively minor malfunction, such as the intercoms going down, can crash many of the jail's basic operations.

"When that happens it means you have to revert to a manual key operation for all your doors and everything, which has been fairly constant in there," Mr. Noakes said.

Shortly after Toronto South opened, these computer glitches had a particularly unsettling impact on the segregation unit, home to some of the jail's most dangerous inmates. On three occasions, up to 15 doors in the unit opened – or "popped," to use the jail terminology – without warning, according to sources. In one instance, officers physically held doors shut for several hours to keep inmates confined.

Employees have complained formally about the computerized control system on eight occasions to the Ministry of Labour. According to the ministry document, staff complaints culminated in an informal job action on Nov. 10, when 50 staff refused to work, citing problems with both the computer system and slow emergency response times in the massive facility.

The design issues go beyond computer infrastructure. While other jail designs position smoke detectors beyond the reach of inmates, at Toronto South they're located directly over the toilet and sink area. At least one industrious inmate has used the sink as a stepladder to climb up and blow powdered milk into the detector, triggering the fire alarm. Another inmate broke off a piece of a sprinkler for use as a weapon, according to a Ministry of Labour complaint.

Staff believe such banned items are infiltrating the jail from outside as well. On April 13, 2015, an employee told the Ministry of Labour that the X-ray machine used to scan clothing and other personal effects had been out of service since the facility opened, making it easy to smuggle contraband.

In other Ontario jails, such problems would be addressed by in-house maintenance workers. Under the P3 agreement, Toronto South staff have to phone in work orders to an off-site agency.

"You can't call for repairs directly any more," Mr. Noakes said. "You have to go through a chain of phone calls. It's another learning curve when you're dealing with P3 partnerships."

Greg Flood, a Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spokesman, said the ministry keeps the safety of staff and inmates in mind at all times. "If health and safety concerns are raised, we work with local staff and health and safety representatives to investigate and resolve the situation, and ensure a safe and healthy working environment," he said.

Still, the steep learning curve has resulted in delays navigating the jail, according to staff. Officers manning control terminals can be so overwhelmed that staff can wait up to five minutes for single doors to open, according to Mr. Small. Considering the size of the institution, any such delays present problems when guards need emergency back-up, or simply when nature calls.

"If you have to go to the bathroom, you're better off using one of the cells," Mr. Small said. "If it's a female staffer, that's a problem."

As the problems persist, staff spirits sag ever lower. "When you see all these deficiencies and faults," Mr. Noakes said, "you lose confidence in the building, lose confidence in the system."